The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Back to the Roots

Back to the Roots


November 25, 2012

Back to the Roots founders Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora came up with the Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Garden concept during their last semester at UC Berkeley in 2009. They experimented in Alex's fraternity kitchen, ultimately growing one test bucket of tasty oyster mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. They are now full-time urban mushroom farmers, on track to divert and reuse more than 3.6 million pounds of coffee grounds annually and help families grow over 135,000 pounds of fresh food at home. We talked to Megan Yarnall, Back to the Roots’ Communications Maestra, about the importance of teaching and inspiring people to take an active role in their food production, and to live more sustainably.

How does your product work and what was the inspiration behind its creation?
The mushroom kit works by using recycled coffee grounds as the soil on which oyster mushrooms will grow. Our founders came across the idea in a business ethics lecture at the end of their senior year, and they left behind job offers on Wall Street to grow mushrooms sustainably because they believed that business could be used for good. They started selling fresh mushrooms to local Berkeley grocery stores, and when friends started asking how they could grow their own fresh mushrooms too, the Grow-Your-Own Mushroom Garden was born. 

How have you been able to merge commerce with sustainable business practices?

Our product itself stands for sustainably since its foundation is recycled coffee grounds, and for us being sustainable means not just being aware of what our product is made from (recyclable cardboard, coffee grounds, mushrooms that can be eaten) but also being upfront about what we do and how we do it. We believe in honesty with our customers. We do the best we can to be completely sustainable and when we don’t meet the mark in some area, we’re honest about it. 

What makes your business unique from others that work with the conversion of food waste to a reusable product?

Our product isn’t solely about reusing waste. It’s also about teaching people how they grow their own food and inspiring them to do so by making it as easy as possible. It’s not just a product that reuses waste – it carries its energy and effect further than that. 
What's the future of the company? Where do you think you'll have the biggest impact?

We’re going to keep making tools for people to easily grow their own food. Hopefully our biggest impact will continue to be with families and schools, where kids can learn the importance of eating fresh, real food and the importance of understanding where it comes from.

What can retailers learn from your success?

Hustle, hustle, hustle. It’s somewhat of a mantra for us, and it means that we’re just doing as much as we can, working as hard as we can, with all the energy we’ve got to make this movement happen and grow.

Click to learn more about Back to the Roots’ upcoming Aquaponics Garden, a closed loop growing system that mimics the natural symbiotic relationship of plants and fish, and will allow anyone to grow their own produce at home.

In upcoming issues, we will continue to feature interviews with companies that are taking innovative steps toward the creation of sustainable products and services. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing please contact Allison Bloom at