Happily, there is a better, low-tech solution to that problem: FreshPaper, which looks like small, square paper towels. They are infused with a mixture of organic spices and botanicals that inhibit bacterial and fungal growth and extend the life of quickly perishable produce. One sheet of maple-scented FreshPaper helped my basket of very ripe strawberries last more than a week in the fridge. A sheet tossed into a plastic bag with cilantro helped the herb last about 10 days.
FreshPaper doesn’t blink or beep, but I’m not complaining. Its power is in its simplicity — and its price. Each 5-by-5-inch sheet, manufactured in Massachusetts, costs 50 cents. Sheets can be used and reused over the course of two or three weeks and then composted.
Like many useful inventions, the idea for FreshPaper began by happenstance. Kavita Shukla, then a student at Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, was visiting relatives in India and swallowed some water while brushing her teeth. Immediately, she began to worry that she would get sick to her stomach. But her grandmother made her a spice tea from an old family recipe, and Shukla avoided illness. Soon, she began to wonder what else this magic formula could do.
If Shukla, now 27 and living in Cambridge, Mass., were like most of us, the story would end there. But she was a determined teenager with a talent for invention. She received her first patent at 13 for a product called Smart Lid. Inspired by her mother, who regularly forgot to screw on the gas cap on her car, the lid beeped when a container or jar was left open.
In high school, Shukla began to look in earnest for practical applications for her grandmother’s special tea. (“As a kid,” Shukla says with a laugh, “I couldn’t test for stomach ailments, except on myself.”) She found it one day at the grocery store when her mother asked her to pick out a pint of strawberries. Many of the baskets had berries that were already going bad. Would dipping the berries in her spice mixture help them stay “healthy”?
It did. And it seemed to work for other fruits and vegetables as well. At 17, Shukla was awarded her second patent.
Shukla thought her invention would be best used in developing countries, where many people lack refrigeration and a lot of produce spoils between the farm and the table. While studying at Harvard — where else would a young woman with two patents on her résuméend up? — she considered starting a nonprofit organization to promote the product. But, she says, “I didn’t really understand how difficult it would be to distribute something, even if you were giving it away for free.” For several years, she put her plans aside.