At Loyola University's Institute for Environmental Sustainability, they're working on a way to reuse okra

Okara is the by-product of making tofu.

Soybeans have a thin skin, jut like chickpeas or kidney beans. When the dried soybeans are soaked prior to being processed to make tofu, the skins are removed. This is the okara and at Phoenix Bean, thousands of pounds of okara are generated each week during the tofu-making process.

This volume of food waste did not sit well with Jenny, particularly because okara is perfectly edible. In countries where tofu production is high, like Japan, culinary uses for okara have been developed, but Jenny didn’t have a way to repurpose this nutrient-dense yet highly-perishable by-product, so she reached out to Nancy Tuchman, the founding dean of Loyola University’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability.

At Loyola, teams of scientists are working on a range of sustainability projects, from finding out which plants can be used to remediate soil in polluted urban areas to partnering with makers like Jenny on unique solutions to unique problems. Currently, experiments are on-going to develop a mushroom-growing substrate from the okara, which is very high in nitrogen. Soybeans are nitrogen “fixers,” meaning that they build nitrogen in the soil.

Once the right substrate is developed, Jenny will be able to repurpose her okara on site, growing mushrooms for the packaged tofu salads she sells in stores across Chicago. Other ideas for reusing the okara include turning it into a flour — I tried cookies made from the okara flour and can tell you that they were delicious — and possibly animal feed.

Without the partnership with Loyola Univeristy, Jenny would not have the opportunity to develop a way to divert this food waste from a land fill, where it decomposes into methane, one of the most volatile greenhouse gasses.

Food waste is a major issue — up to 40% of food in the U.S. alone is never eaten. It’s a multifaceted problem that requires focused solutions. The partnership between Phoenix Bean and Loyola University is just one example of the many ways people are working together to make an impact.

Catherine Neville