Akissi Stokes-Nelson and her husband Karim Nelson laugh as they explain how they started encouraging people to eat bugs. “It’s not disgusting and many places in the world it’s quite common,” Nelson said.
The Stone Mountain couple, who are founders and owners of WunderGrubs, say they want to acquaint more people with edible insects “as a healthy, affordable, and sustainable protein ingredient for human food, animal feed, and soil fertilizer.”
“We wanted to start a business, but we wanted to do something that would meet a need, too,” Nelson explained. WunderGrubs, which launched in 2017, now has two production locations in Atlanta, and space in a DeKalb shared kitchen as well as the facilities in the basement of the couple’s Stone Mountain home.
“People think of eating insects as something that people with very little income or who are in dire straits do, but with a world population that’s growing every day, we have to think in terms of more sustainable food sources,” said Stokes-Nelson.
Nelson, who is from the Virgin Islands, said that after an unusual season in which his birthplace sustained two hurricanes, he saw people having only army rations to eat because the vessels that normally bring food to the islands were unable to reach it. “The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how such events as a pandemic, a natural disaster or a war can disrupt the food supply chain. It doesn’t matter how much money you have if food cannot be shipped to you.”
Even in ordinary times, they said, insects can be a simple, inexpensive way to add protein and other nutrients to one’s diet. “Having this food available gives you more control over what you eat,” Stokes-Nelson said. “People envision our average customer as a White woman in her 20s or 30s with adventurous food tastes, but most of them are older people of color who want a simple, inexpensive way to get the nutrients they need. Pound for pound, mealworms provide more protein than chicken or beef.”
After exploring a variety of options, the couple decided on mealworms, a species of darkling beetle that breeds proficiently, is versatile in its uses, and is farmed relatively easily. “They aren’t noisy like crickets, another edible insect. They eat such food scraps as the ends and peels of sweet potatoes, apple cores, and banana peels. They get the water they need from the food and their waste can be used as fertilizer. They require some maintenance, but not as much maintenance as a cow,” Stokes-Nelson said.
What the edible product tastes like depends on what it’s fed. “Some have an earthy taste like truffles; some have a nutty taste, and some are like tofu with little taste of their own, so they taste like what you cook them with whether it’s sweet or savory.” Mealworms can be eaten raw, dried and ground to a powder, roasted, or smoked, she said, adding, “Smoked they taste like bacon and that’s an entry point for some people—sampling something new that tastes like something they already love.”
Although WunderGrub products are available in a few small retail establishments, most are sold online, Stokes-Nelson explained. “We have approached some of the chain grocery stores, but the margins just aren’t worth it to them. Also, it’s hard to get people sold on the concept of insects as food, especially here in the South where they are generally thought of as pests.”
Some would-be consumers are sold on the concept, but ask, “How do you serve them?” according to Stokes-Nelson. “They can be added to lots of foods, including baked goods,” she said. “We have developed several recipes and I think a cookbook might be our next project. It would be great if a chef started creating dishes featuring our products. I bring chocolate chip cookies made with mealworms to places where we give demonstrations so people can taste how the mealworms boost the protein content and are still delicious.”
WunderGrubs will have a booth at the Atlanta Science Festival, which will be held March 10 through 25 at locations across the metro Atlanta area.