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You Become What You Eat: How Entrepreneurs Are Using Food as an Agent of Social Change

Natural Reaction

How the bramble transforms when the blackberries
burst forth, a supple touch softening the stem’s tough thorns.
And how, in turn, the blackberries metamorph
in the artisan’s hands, which stud them, seedlike
into some delicate dish, an exquisite tart now tempting
passers-by from the window. And how the baker
has been changed by this act, too. Look at her tinged hands.
Look at the magnificent things they can do.

— Matthew Kosinski

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of Wild Figs' rich feast, we look at how the food industry can spark positive social movements.

In October 2016, the United Nations Special Representative on the right to food, Hilal Elver, declared junk food a human rights concern.1

More than 2 billion people around the world suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, meaning their daily diets don’t supply them with adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, and vitamin A, which are necessary for good health.2 The cause of the crisis is a global food industry incentivized to stock shelves with nutrient-poor, energy-rich foods.

It’s a situation we’ve all encountered before. Think about how much cheaper a trip to the drive-through window is than a farm-to-table meal, or the relative cost of processed white bread versus an artisanal whole-grain loaf. The conventional food industry prioritizes high yields over nutritional value, which leaves most of us eating unvaried diets derived mainly from corn, wheat, and soybeans.3 In the quest to mass-produce palatable but shelf-stable foods, corporations pump their products full of preservatives and flavor enhancers like corn syrup and salt.4 As a result, the average American consumes more than three times the recommended daily sugar limit.5

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

For Elver, the fact that junk food is often available at much lower prices and in much greater quantities than healthier alternatives is paramount to a violation of the “human right to adequate food” — and increasingly, it seems food producers agree with her. In recent years, more and more food entrepreneurs have been challenging the industry’s orthodoxy. They’re not only looking for ways to make healthy diets more accessible — they’re also embracing the food industry’s unique potential to help us reshape our world and our perspectives. No other industry touches our planet in such a widespread way while also intersecting with our daily lives so immediately.

A Single Grain

When we talk about social responsibility in food, the conversation almost always hinges on farming. While regenerative agriculture can go a long way in making the world a healthier place, what food producers and distributors do with crops and livestock is just as important as how they’re raised.

Food entrepreneurs occupy a uniquely powerful position in the movement for a more holistically nourished world. They’re the center point between the farmers on the one hand and the consumers on the other. As such, food entrepreneurs can influence both ends of the food industry equation, encouraging more farmers and eaters alike to reach for regenerative agriculture. Something as simple as choosing to use sustainable, organic ingredients instead of conventionally grown and nutrient-poor ones can have a massive impact on the entire global food ecosystem.

Photo by Shalitha Dissanayaka on Unsplash

Organic foods — meaning crops that make use of natural environmental processes, including nonchemical fertilizers and pest control measures, to foster growth — tend to be healthier than conventional alternatives. Research ties organic food consumption to a reduced risk of allergic disease, reduced exposure to pesticides, and reduced incidence of antibiotic resistance.6 But those health benefits are out of reach for many consumers, because organic foods often come with higher price tags.

Food entrepreneurs like the folks behind the Hudson Valley-based Bread Alone bakery recognize that fact and build it right into their business models. The company is committed not only to using sustainably grown organic grains but also keeping its breads and goods “affordable and accessible for all.”7 That latter half of the commitment is key: Simply using organic ingredients isn’t enough to honor the human right to adequate food. We need to find ways to ensure everyone can equally savor those healthier ingredients, too.

“As farmers continue producing organic crops, food producers can continue using those ingredients to deliver healthy food to consumers.”

And the choice to use sustainable ingredients in the first place produces a virtuous cycle of sorts. When food producers choose to work with sustainable farms, they put more money into those farmers’ pockets, making it feasible for them to continue using sustainable agricultural methods. As farmers continue producing organic crops, food producers can continue using those ingredients to deliver healthy food to consumers. The sum-total quality of human and environmental health improves a little more with each turn of the economic wheel — and it all started with the seemingly small decision to use organic grains.

Radically Responsible Role Models

Aside from bridging farmers and consumers, food producers also have the advantage of operating in one of the most universal of industries. Put another way: Everyone needs to eat, so everyone encounters the food industry in some way throughout the course of a typical day. It also helps that food is more than a functional act. Yes, we eat because we’re hungry, but we also eat to feel good and derive pleasure from the experience.8 Many food entrepreneurs are taking advantage of this visibility and emotional intimacy by turning their socially responsible businesses into resonant examples for the rest of us.

As Agatha Kulaga, cofounder of the New York City-based bakery Ovenly, put it in a recent interview, “We are a triple bottom-line company. We care about people, and about the planet, and we are also a for-profit business. We are trying to show that a small business can lead with values but still be profitable.”9

Ovenly in Greenpoint; Source: Ovenly

Ovenly’s particular values manifest as what it calls “radical responsibility,” a business philosophy the company wishes to spread so far and wide that “one day it may not seem so radical.”10 Those values, of course, include sourcing sustainable ingredients and making quality food available to more people, but radical responsibility also extends beyond matters of ingredient choice. For example, Ovenly’s staff members are trained to educate customers on sustainability, encouraging people to opt for reusable cups and containers and incentivizing that behavior by offering discounts.11 And the company educates other businesses, too, by actively promulgating its socially conscious business model to other entrepreneurs.12

Ovenly has also embraced the concept of “open hiring,” a page it took from the book of the B Corporation bakery Greyston, which has been baking delicious cookies and practicing open hiring since its founding nearly four decades ago.

When Greyston is hiring, it doesn’t conduct background checks or drug tests; it doesn’t scrutinize resumes or run applicants through a battery of interviews. Instead, the company simply asks interested candidates to sign up for its job list. When a new role opens up, the next person on the list is invited to join the team.13 This is revolutionary to the point of being shocking for most business people.

Greyston's open hiring practices demonstrate a belief in the potential of each individual to contribute and thrive in their culture; Source: Conscious Capitalism

The idea behind open hiring is to give everyone — regardless of background — a fair shot at earning a living wage in a stable job. It puts the onus on the company to provide great training, systems, and culture, and not on individuals to show up already perfectly fit for a role. Greyston trains new hires in both the technical skills they need for the job and the less tangible skills they need for professional careers in general, like communication and interpersonal skills. The company also provides supportive services to help people tackle other challenges that might keep them from steady employment, like finding childcare or housing.14 The result is a truly transformational experience for those next on the Greyston hiring list.

Greyston doesn’t approach this as charity work. For the bakery, it’s a combination of good business strategy and what it means for a company to invest in its own community. Most companies rely on extensive and expensive screening processes to fill entry-level roles — and yet, Greyston enjoys lower turnover rates and deals with high-level customers like Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry’s. In other words, Greyston gets much better results from investing in people than it would from putting more barriers in their way. The company’s radical cookies — and how they get made — now act as inspiration to others, too.15

“We talk to lots of folks who think what we do is great, and yet when it comes to their own companies, they say, ‘That wouldn’t work for us,’” says Sara Marcus, director of the Greyston Center for Open Hiring, which helps companies implement their own open hiring practices. “But why not? We have great employees that come through open hiring, and every company should want to hire the people we hire this way.”

Greyston employees in Yonkers; Source: Greyston

Greater Than Good Taste

Beyond educating customers and other companies about sustainable consumer and business practices, many food entrepreneurs are also plugging into official reform efforts, helping governments put their social justice plans into action.

Take Bread Alone, whose bakery sits a few miles from our studio in Kingston, NY. They have taken on a vocal role as a champion of the Ulster County Green New Deal, an initiative by the upstate New York county to build a greener, more equitable economy over the next 20 years. As part of that role, Bread Alone is striving to create the first carbon-neutral bakery in the U.S. Its headquarters already obtains a third of its energy from solar panels, and the company aims to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.16

Bread Alone were recently honored as a Green Champion by Ulster County, NY; Source: Ocean's 8 Films

“We hope, by creating a highly visible [solar panel array], we prompt a lot of conversation among not just our customers, but other businesses in Ulster County,” says Bread Alone CEO Nels Leader.

Bread Alone’s decision to go carbon neutral is a particularly potent one, given that the food industry accounts for a quarter of global emissions. But that fact also makes food the most logical place to start when it comes to climate justice.17

As the examples of Bread Alone, Ovenly, Greyston, and countless other entrepreneurs show us, food sits at the nexus of an interconnected web of human rights: the right to personal and environmental health, the right to a living wage, the right to have our communities cared for rather than exploited by the businesses we welcome into them.

“We can prove by our actions that a healthier, more equitable society isn’t some lofty goal, always out of reach. It’s right around the corner, provided we take the right steps.”

Because of its fundamental place in our lives, food has the power to positively reshape the world we inhabit — and each of us can participate in that act. It might start with the simple delight of tasting something grown locally. Maybe you decide to make your favorite brownie recipe for a charity bake sale. Maybe you become an advocate for open hiring at your own place of work.

Whatever paths we choose, we can appreciate the power of the food industry to ferment transformational change. We can prove by our actions that a healthier, more equitable society isn’t some lofty goal, always out of reach. It’s right around the corner, provided we take the right steps. And those steps can start in neighborhood cafés, in farmers’ markets, or simply right at home, with the stories behind what’s on our plates.

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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