Food sustainability: Can we hack it?


By Maggie Mah

Special to The Almanac

It had a catchy name -- one suitable for Silicon Valley and a region where sustainable food production is of wide interest. Called "Hacking Food," it was the second Bay Area's Sustainable Food Festival, and it took place in Menlo Park on July 12 at BootUP on Willow Road.

The event is aimed at bringing awareness and finding solutions to a problem that affects us all: namely, a stable and reliable food supply for the future. The program for this year's festival included a panel discussion, five different break-out workshop sessions, and a showcase for the products of 17 entrepreneurial companies.

The festival was organized and presented by the Menlo Park-based company One World, and is the brainchild of founder and CEO Scott Saslow and Program Director Angie Mertens. "The goals of this program are to educate, connect and to learn from each other about the latest barriers and innovations toward the creation of a more resilient, equitable, and healthy food system," Mertens said.

Encountering the term, "Hacking Food," for the first time, one might pause and, depending upon one's age and level of cyber sophistication, might consider a number of possible interpretations. Asked how they arrived at the name, Mertens said, "Since we're based in Silicon Valley, we wanted to introduce a tech term into the title. Our goal is to 'hack' some of the myths around food and agriculture and showcase the latest innovations."

The event was designed to attract a range of potential attendees. According to Mertens, "the event brings together impact investors, venture capitalists, social entrepreneurs and everyday consumers who want to engage and feel inspired about the latest food system innovations." Some 160 people paid to attend this year's event. Long-term vision for "Hacking Food" is for a much larger annual event spanning multiple days.

Whether it is fully understood or not, food sustainability is a growing concern to American consumers. According to a 2018 study by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 59 percent of the people participating in the study said it was important that the foods they purchase and eat be produced in a sustainable way.

Hand-in-hand with increased awareness about the world's pressing food and environmental problems is the expectation by customers and employees (especially Milennials, according to recent studies) that companies operate in a socially responsible way. Businesses with a priority on people and the planet as well as profitability are called "Triple Bottom Line" businesses -- a hot topic in Silicon Valley.

Just as the meaning of "Hacking Food" might not have been immediately transparent, the discovery that Silicon Valley is buzzing with investors and venture capitalists seeking to fund innovations in the food and beverage sectors might be something of a surprise. However, positioned at the intersection of sustainable food and Triple Bottom Line businesses are a new breed of investment and consulting firms very actively backing and advising start-ups and entrepreneurs in the edible arena.

Participating in the Sustainable Food Festival and One World's partners in putting on the "Hacking Food" event were representatives from several of these firms, including Arno Hesse, founder and CEO of Credibles, a venture capital firm whose pre-paid crowd-funding concept allows customers to help support local food and beverage businesses; Dave Cooper, managing partner of Montcalm Capital; and Erin Axelrod, partner at LiftEconomy, a consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses improve their social and environmental performance.

The afternoon's formal program was kicked off with a panel discussion on "Scaling a Business and Keeping Sustainability at the Core." Panelists included local culinary luminary, Jesse Cool; Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli; and Sangita Forth, vice president of marketing and general manager of Revolution Foods.

Cool, who refers to herself as a "revolutionary, not a pioneer," has nevertheless been a leading proponent of sustainable food for more than 40 years. She stated: "It takes time, and you can't be impatient. The customer comes last. If you take care of how the food is grown, make sure the cooks are paid well and take care of everyone along the way, the customer will be taken care of."

About her early years in the food business, Cool said, "I learned everything from farmers' markets and people who cared about the soil." In addition to being a successful restaurateur and writer, Cool consults with Stanford Hospital on food and wellness.

Lisa Curtis has based her business, Kuli Kuli, on moringa, a green "superfood" plant that proponents claim is significantly higher in protein, iron, calcium and fiber than kale. Since discovering moringa while serving in the Peace Corp in West Africa, she has raised $4.5 million in the last five years to grow her business.

Asked about how Kuli Kuli has managed to maintain its mission after receiving a substantial investment by a division of Kellogg's, Curtis said: "Kellogg's has been very supportive. Big companies know they can't continue to sell sugary stuff."

Moringa is sourced from small farms, many of which are operated by women who are able to earn a sustainable livelihood by selling a portion of their harvest to the U.S.

Sangita Forth left Plum Organics to join Revolution Foods. The company, whose slogan is "Kid inspired, chef crafted," prepares and delivers healthful meals to schools in 11 states and is currently testing a concept for convenient dinner solutions.

Referring to her success in growing companies from $1 million to $100 million, she said, "Finding the right people is key."

Revolution Foods has also developed partnerships with Whole Foods and Food Corp, which Forth said is key to moving forward. "You have to identify your core competencies then find partners who can help you," Forth explained.

Following the panel discussion, the attendees were invited to attend one of three workshop sessions that offered the opportunity to have in-depth discussions with the featured entrepreneurs on the topics of alternative proteins, transforming the supply chain, and achieving zero-waste.

According to Food Navigator, an online food industry news publication, start-ups and smaller local players are setting the pace of innovation. The 17 entrepreneurs showcased at "Hacking Food" are well on their way to doing just that. Explaining how they were chosen, Mertens said, "Our goal was to showcase a variety and represent what's being done in the food life cycle."

The entrepreneurs this writer encountered have already accomplished a lot. Even more impressive, the "battle testing" that is inevitable in bringing products to market appeared to have made them even more dedicated to their mission. Festival attendees got to taste, sip and experience their products first-hand.

In addition to the companies mentioned above, here are a few more that participated in the event:

• "Chirp" Snack Chips: three flavors made with high-protein cricket meal, featured on Shark Tank.

• "Ripple," nondairy "milk" products made from yellow split peas. Started and run by one of the "Method" cleaning products founders.

• IGZU, bottled tea in three flavors made from sustainable bamboo leaves.

• Kube Nice Cream, made from raw hand-cracked fresh coconuts without chemical preservatives.

• Kitchen Witch Bone Broth, made with bones from grass-fed animals, organic vegetables; locally sourced.

• Better Chew, products made with non- GMO soy protein.

• Zego, purity-tested, plant-based bars; allergen and gluten free.

• Verdical, vertical growing systems for food service.

• Town Kitchen, corporate lunch delivery and jobs for urban youth.

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