At Fruitcycle, Both Apples and People Get a Second Chance
What became of the apple that fell from the tree and hit Isaac Newton on the head? Did he eat it, fearful of going hypoglycemic during one of history’s most important discoveries? Or did the Englishman turn up his nose at the surely bruised fruit and leave it lying there in the dirt?
If Elizabeth Bennett had been there for the maybe-mythic moment, she would have picked up that seemingly useless fruit. Falling apples are her inspiration too—not for understanding the power of gravity but for starting a sustainable and community-driven social enterprise.
Late last year, Bennett launched Fruitcycle, a Washington, D.C.–based company that partners with local orchards to make all-natural snacks from fruit that would otherwise go to waste; dried apple chips are the debut product. She wants to be a part of the solution to America’s massive food waste problem, helping to make a dent in the $161 billion worth of edible food dumped into landfills each year.
She got an inside look at farmers’ food waste problems when she visited an orchard during the fall harvest. Bennett described walking into its general store and seeing apple products for sale—breads, jellies, sauces, ciders, pies—and thinking, “Oh wow, they don’t have waste; they’re using it all!” But despite their best efforts, the owners still had a substantial amount of unusable product, owing to a limited labor capacity. “There are plenty of places food is going to waste just because the distribution side is really complicated,” she added.
The fate of the fruit itself isn’t the only issue on Bennett’s mind. She also wants to make sure the farmers are being adequately compensated, even for a product that would be otherwise unsellable. “I pay for the apples because supporting farmers is important to me, and farming is not an easy job in any sense of the word,” she said.
Fruitcycle’s social concerns extend far beyond the farm, or any one specific issue, and tend more toward general altruism. The mission statement on its website is novel in its simplicity: “Fruitcycle aims to do good—for its suppliers, its employees, its customers, its community, and its planet.” And Bennett appears capable of delivering on those promises.
Take labor: Fruitcycle exclusively hires women who have been formerly homeless or incarcerated because, well, they need help. The number of women in prison has increased 646 percent since 1980, and Bennett wants to address the problem of employment discrimination in life after prison.
“The reality of a returning citizen trying to reenter society is that employers aren’t necessarily willing to take chances,” she said. “Employers view it as potentially scary that someone’s been in prison. But if you can’t get a job, what are you supposed to do? It’s a vicious cycle.”
Bennett also explained that previously incarcerated women might face certain challenges that their male counterparts don’t. “Women often have children and are returning to care for them again, and they need to put food on the table. So as a woman it just seemed natural to target my efforts toward that.” Together We Bake, a local nonprofit that provides job training for “women in need of a second chance,” helped her find a new and needed addition to the Fruitcycle team.
When I spoke with Bennett over the phone, it was the first day she was able to leave the kitchen and focus exclusively on the business side of Fruitcycle. “Elaine is actually in the kitchen right now doing all the apple chip production while I’m running around like crazy,” Bennett said of Fruitcycle’s new pair of helping hands. She has already conducted interviews for her second hire through N Street Village, an organization that serves 1,400 homeless or low-income women every year.
The apple chips are being sold in seven markets across the D.C. area, but nonlocals can purchase them directly from Fruitcycle’s online store. Bennett plans to expand the range of products, possibly with kale chips and other healthy snacks, but right now she’s focusing on one delivery at a time.
She acknowledges the difficulties in taking on the seemingly immutable problem of food waste, but she sees herself as a single gear in a larger mechanism. “Fruitcycle cannot solve these problems alone, but we hope to raise awareness of these issues, encourage others to get involved, and be a part of the solution,” she said.