When you think "innovation in food," does a Taco Bell quesalupa come to mind?

Not for Em Olson LaFave. When LaFave -- whose first food tech startup got acquired and is now hard at work building her second -- flipped through Fast Company's list of  innovative food companies, she was hugely disappointed by those at the top of the list. Top three: Taco Bell. Domino's. McDonald's.

"Really?" LaFave wrote in a Medium post, "That's the best we can do?" She said doesn't consider the menu items those fast food chains sell as good food. "Good food being defined as that which is grown with integrity, without chemicals, sustainable for our planet, and tastes delicious," she wrote.

So the food-obsessed entrepreneur teamed up with fellow food techie Kristen Hawley of  Chefs + Tech to create their own list of truly innovative companies. Companies that are dedicated to serving actual food in unique and different ways. That are tackling tough food problems and are trying to make a meaningful difference. That serve real, good food.

These are seven companies that LaFave and Hawley feel should replace the top three on the most innovative food companies list.

In impoverished areas, you can find plenty of cheap meals at any number of major fast food chains. Sustainable and healthy fast food isn't really a thing. But California chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi have set out to change that.

Last month, the first LocoL restaurant opened in Los Angeles. "We believe that fast food restaurants can truly empower the communities they currently underserve," LocoL's website explains. "We believe that the giant corporations that feed most of America have degraded our communities by maximizing profits over decades."

This just-opened San Francisco restaurant is not only committed to sustainable food, but also sustainable restaurant design, construction and all the other non-food things that are part of a dining experience. Anthony Myint, Karen Leibowitz and Chris Kiyuna are ruthlessly dedicated to serving great food and giving back.

The Perennial operates a 2000-square-foot aquaponic greenhouse in Oakland to grow produce and compost food waste. They're experimenting with a new grain in their bakery to replace conventional wheat, which utterly destroys soil and land. They serve climate beneficial beef, by supporting cattle farmers who have adopted a new technique that uses compost, manages grazing and promotes plant growth.

Tim Young and Scott Drummond don't believe that fresh, nutritious food should cost a fortune or take forever to prepare. Every protein-packed quinoa bowl that Eatsa sells costs just $6.95.

What's more, as much of the entire process is automated. You order from an iPad, then pick up your prepared meal from a cubby. Right now humans prepare the food, but Eastsa hopes to automate this, too.

This allows the restaurant to operate with minimal staff so that they can keep food costs low. According to Brit + Co, the fast food restaurant's first general manager is an ex-military robotics specialist.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is an elegant fancy-pants restaurant. But it has no menu. Instead, you select one of three options: Grazing, Rooting or Pecking. And you get what the chefs have sourced from the field and the market that day. They serve items that may have been overlooked or deemed un-pretty, thus un-edible by other shoppers.

The concept comes from executive chef Dan Barber, who President Barack Obama nominated to serve on the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. LaFave and Hawley selected this one for their list because the restaurant is so seriously dedicated to eliminating food waste.

"This national conversation about changing our relationship with food waste is trickling down, inspiring new business ideas and making an impact in dining rooms where chefs are putting those typically wasted ingredients on your dinner plate," LaFave says.

Edenworks is bringing the production of food closer to home for urbanites. Like, on-top-of-your-roof closer to home.

Bioengineer Jason Green, architect Ben Silverman and fabricator Matt La Rosa have taken vertical farming one step further. Their custom aquaponic growing system was designed to fit on top of unused space on commercial buildings. It also has its own app so farmers can keep tabs on their produce.

There's nothing wrong with wonky-looking fruit or vegetables. But people don't buy them. One in five pieces of produce don't fit grocery stores' strict cosmetic standards, meaning crooked carrots, curvy cucumbers and awkward-looking apples usually go to waste. But no longer. Not if the Imperfect Produce team can help it.

Ben Simon and Ben Chesler are saving that unwanted produce and helping farmers profit from it with their "ugly" fruit and vegetable CSA boxes. The boxes full of imperfect-looking produce are cheaper than traditional CSA subscriptions by 30 to 50 percent. It seems as though #cookingugly can look pretty good.

Food expiration and sell-by dates are pretty much a  total farce. Even so, heaps of food gets wasted and tossed in the dumpster because grocery stores can't sell "expired" food.

The former president of Trader Joe's Doug Ranch came up with a concept to tackle this problem. Daily Table is a grocery store that sells food that otherwise would have been thrown out. The nonprofit supermarket in Dorchester, Massachusetts serves a low-to-middle income neighborhood and sells surplus food at a much lower prices than other grocery stores.

Published on: Mar 7, 2016