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Growing Mushrooms From Food Waste

Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Today we’ll look at a farm in Queens that grows mushrooms for restaurants in food waste collected from those same restaurants. We’ll also get details on Columbia University’s decision to cancel its universitywide commencement ceremony.

“This is the farm,” Sierra Alea said.

It didn’t look like one. There wasn’t a tractor in sight. There were no fields with asparagus, raspberries or strawberries in the 3,500-square-foot room, deep in an industrial building across from an automobile junkyard in Queens.

But it is a farm — an indoor one that grows mushrooms for restaurants in Manhattan.

It grows them in food waste collected from those same restaurants.

“This is how to eliminate food waste from landfills,” Alea said. That’s the idea behind Afterlife Ag, the mushroom-growing startup of which she is a co-founder.

Food waste that rots in a landfill generates methane gas, second only to carbon dioxide as a factor in climate warming. Winson Wong, another co-founder of Afterlife Ag, said that 80 to 85 percent of what is thrown away in a restaurant is “prep waste, ” material like egg shells, lemon wedges and tomato peels — “things people never eat.” ReFED, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing food waste, said that the food service industry sent 13 million tons of waste to landfills in 2022, the most recent year for which it has posted figures.

Wong, whose family runs a food distribution company in Hong Kong and who had worked in tech startups, said that Afterlife Ag grew out of an effort to arrange composting for restaurants in New York. But he and his team decided not to wrestle with composting in the city, with more food waste to process and only limited space to process it.

“But we had all these restaurant clients that wanted to compost,” Wong said.

The team investigated ways to break down food waste and create a product that could go back to the restaurants where the waste had originated.

One idea was insects, which feed on food waste in nature. “The world is not ready to eat insects,” he said. “Restaurants don’t really want them.”

The best idea turned out to be mushrooms. The team began experimenting with growing them and asking whether the restaurants would buy them. That led to Afterlife Ag’s model, picking up restaurant waste — not the scraps that customers had left on their plates but discards from the chefs who had prepared their meals — and returning with mushrooms.

Soon Afterlife Ag was involved in the intricacies of farming and creating substrate in which to grow mushrooms, sometimes with wood chips or shavings from sawmills, sometimes with sawdust from purveyors that smoke fish, sometimes with hemp from hemp farms.

“Food waste varies from day to day,” said Aaron Kang, the head grower at Afterlife Ag. “The first step is to shred it.” That explained the noisy machine near the front of the start-up’s space. It was grinding dozens of orange peels into small pieces that would eventually be bagged with the wood chips and run through sterilization machines. Kang said the high-temperature steam and pressure “kill off anything that might be living in the food waste” and that might stunt growth later on, after the injection of fungal mycelium — the network of fungal threats that gives rise to the mushroom.

The bags of substrate go to a shelf where the fungal mycelium digest the waste, and mushrooms can poke through after a few weeks.

Afterlife Ag harvests mushrooms every day and packs them in five-pound boxes for delivery to its restaurant clients. It also sells to schools and hospitals but not, for now, to retail customers.

At one of the restaurants — State Grill and Bar, at 21 West 33rd Street, in the Empire State Building — the chef, Morgan Jarrett, made four dishes with ingredients from Afterlife Ag, starting with a mousse made from pink oyster mushrooms and black king trumpet mushrooms, topped by jangajji, a type of pickled mushroom. I asked Florence Fabricant, who writes the weekly Front Burner and Off the Menu columns in The New York Times’s Food section, to join Wong and me for a tasting.

“Mushrooms don’t have a lot of flavor on their own,” she said, “and the mousse was fairly bland but contributed great buttery texture. But having the pickled mushroom on top sharpened the flavors and brought everything into focus.”


Weather

Mostly sunny, with a high near 76. Showers are likely overnight, with a low of 59.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Thursday (Solemnity of the Ascension).

Columbia University canceled its main commencement ceremony after weeks of pro-Palestinian protests.

But it will hold smaller ceremonies for each of its 19 colleges, mostly at its athletics complex 100 blocks from the main campus, which has been mostly locked down since last week, when police officers removed 46 protesters who had occupied Hamilton Hall.

Columbia has repeatedly said that Hamilton Hall remains a crime scene, leaving questions as to how some 15,000 graduates and their guests could easily be admitted for the commencement ceremony on May 15. Ben Chang, a university spokesman, said on Monday that Columbia had made extensive efforts to identify an alternative venue and had not found one that could accommodate such a large event.

Instead, a statement from the university said that “we have decided to make the centerpiece of our commencement activities our class days and school-level ceremonies, where students are honored individually alongside their peers, rather than the universitywide ceremony.”

The school said that it was still considering holding a “festive event on May 15” and that it would follow up with more details. The celebrations for the different colleges will begin on Friday and run through May 16.


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

I was walking alone down Canal Street to the East Broadway F station on a Saturday night in February when two older men approached me near Eldridge Street. One asked for directions to the subway.

I asked which train he was looking for.

“We’re trying to get to 46th and Fifth, so what is that, the B.M.T.?”

I laughed.

“When was the last time you were in New York?” I asked. “1968?”

“1970,” he replied matter-of-factly.

I explained that the train lines now went by numbers and letters only, that the F was nearby, that it would take them to close to their destination and that I was going there myself and would be happy to show them the way.

As we walked to the station, the man who had asked about the B.M.T. told me he had immigrated to New York from France when he was 14, had attended City College with the man he was with now and had driven a taxi in the city for a time before leaving in 1970.

When he marveled at how much Chinatown had grown since he had left, I explained that Manhattan’s Chinatown was now smaller than those in Queens and Brooklyn.

When we got to the station, the man asked me how to pay the fare. He was impressed when I showed him how to pay by tapping a credit card.

“What’s the fare these days?” his friend asked.

I told him it was $2.90.

“Nooooooo!” he cried.

— Aaron Chase

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


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