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Innovative new food companies are emerging everywhere. Some sell new products; others offer new services. It is rare that such ventures embody a whole new way of thinking about our food systems.
Earlier this month I met graduates of the Food System 6 accelerator who are tackling such broad-scale challenges — whether by influencing the food choices of Latino millennials (Maria Garcia Brennan, Soñar! Foods); taking a holistic, preventative approach to animal health (Louis Hui, Healthy Cow); or redesigning school meals (Mara Fleishman, Chef Ann Foundation).
Systems change is hard. It takes long-term vision and collective, adaptive action. I asked these entrepreneurs about the problems they’re tackling, what motivates their work, and their hopes for impact in five years.
Lorin Fries: What does your team do, and what food system challenges are you tackling?
Maria Garcia Brennan: At Soñar! we are making the first USDA Organic, grain-free, nutrient-dense tortilla chip. They’re made of five simple, unique ingredients – garbanzo beans, cassava, chia, hemp and flax, plus Mexican seasoning – and deliver three grams of protein and five grams of fiber per serving. We want to increase the percentage of foods that are grown organically, while promoting health and safety for our farm workers, our environment and our bodies.
Louis Hui: Healthy Cow is an ag biotech company for the dairy industry. Our products help dairy farmers produce more wholesome and sustainable milk. Our first product, ProPreg, is a natural consortium of probiotics that are applied before and after calving to reestablish a healthy vaginal microbiome. Our ultimate goal is to help dairy farmers prevent disease so that they use fewer antibiotics and hormones, and ultimately improve cows’ health. We take a whole-system view, leveraging microbiome and metabolism science to develop new tools and preventative therapies.
Mara Fleishman: The Chef Ann Foundation is a national nonprofit. We help schools create healthier food by moving from a highly processed heat-and-serve approach to a cook from scratch operation. Institutional food gets overlooked in food system change. There are 30 million lunches served every day in the US. About 21 million of those go to kids on the free and reduced lunch program, who live in families earning less than $44,000 a year. That’s the very group that disproportionately experiences nutritional health issues like obesity and diabetes. By helping schools move to cooking from scratch, we’re giving control back to them to procure higher-quality ingredients and advance sustainability and health in the food system.
Fries: What motivates you, personally, to do this work?
Garcia Brennan: I’m a Mexican immigrant. I came to the US when I was about five years old. My family was in pursuit of a better future for us. In November of 2016, my daughters asked my husband if Mommy was going to be sent back to Mexico. It was a call to action. I worked hard to get to where I am, and I was the first in my family to go to college. I want to my daughters and the future generations of Latinos to be able to achieve their dreams, as well. Soñar means “to dream”; our brands represent ideas and have the power to fuel a movement. For us, it’s very personal to celebrate, inspire and support the Latino community. At least 1% of our annual sales will go to the Latino Community Foundation to help them advance their mission.
Hui: I’ve always been fascinated by science. I believe it’s powerful be able to bring interesting, beneficial technologies, like biotechnology, to address challenges at scale. I made a conscious choice to develop myself in this area and to build a business whose products and technologies can have important benefits for society.
Fleishman: One day, when my now-teenage daughter was in kindergarten, I went to school lunch with her. They were serving processed french toast sticks with syrup in a packet that contained no actual maple syrup, and canned pears in a syrupy sauce. It was all sugar. I had worked at Whole Foods for 13 years, focusing on programs to get better food to middle- and upper-income people. I started to learn more about school food issues, and how many kids were eating this crappy food every single day. We have a nutrient hunger issue in this country, and we’re going to continue that way as long as we keep up the demand for cheap food. If we’re seeking system change, let’s start with how a child looks at a meal, and how their palates are shaped from the start. This is the age – this is the moment – when we’ve got the best shot to help our next generation thrive.
Fries: What do you hope to have achieved in five years?
Garcia Brennan: Less than 5% of businesses with more than $1 million in revenue are owned by Latinos. Soñar is a Latina-owned organic food company, and we’re looking to shatter the statistics while bringing nutrient-dense foods from the field to families across the US. We’re on a mission to nourish and empower a nation of Dreamers.
Hui: I see us disrupting large pharma. There hasn’t been a lot of innovation on animal health in the last 30 years. Pharma companies have pushed antibiotics and hormones, leading to excessive use. Cows are glorious and complex animals, and they provide a lot of value for everyone – especially through milk. It’s not the cow; it’s the how. I see us providing a suite of products, all based off of a systems biology approach, using alternative therapies that enable dairy farmers to keep cows healthy.
Fleishman: People often don’t realize that the school lunch program has the ability to reach all of our children – especially our low-income children – so it’s a perfect channel to address reform and create change. In five years, I’d like to see every school have a mandatory salad bar, and to have one state investing in the reform of all their school districts toward cooking from scratch. States like Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado are starting to approve additional state-based subsidies for local procurement and school food. Those are the kinds of example that could spiral across the country and create lasting change into the future.
May 29, 2019 at 06:34PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs