The Outdoor Clothing Brand Writing "Doing Good" into Their Budget by Ann Yang

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What started with a chance encounter between future Cotopaxi founders, Stephan Jacob and Davis Smith, on the streets of Peru, has evolved into a socially minded clothing and lifestyle brand with the motto, “Gear for Good.”

While many businesses incorporate philanthropy in their mission, or in some cases, marketing strategies, Cotopaxi have doing good written into their bottom line. “Before we knew what products we would make, we wanted to incorporate impact in a solid, bulletproof, non-disruptive way,” Jacob says.

Instead of the “buy one, give one” model many social enterprises operate on, Cotopaxi dedicates two percent of all sales to philanthropic grants, in the hope to foster sustainable and self-sufficient development in the communities they work with. And they’re relentless in their vetting of community partners. “It's very easy to want to do good, and it’s very easy to screw it up,” Jacob says. “We want to ensure the money directly improves lives of our beneficiaries.”

Each Cotopaxi product has a transparent humanitarian impact: water bottles raising money for clean drinking water, or Jacket insulation providing income for Bolivian llama farmers, for example. One of their recent iterations is no different. Each item in Cotopaxi’s Del Día collection is hand-sewn out of scrap materials by artisans in the Philippines. Along with the direct economic opportunity, each maker is empowered to choose their own styles and colorways, with no two pieces ever the same.

Here, Jacob elaborates on Del Día, the Cotopaxi mission, and lessons he’s learned along the way.

Part of the Del Día collection: The Cotopaxi Tarak 20L Climbing Pack

Part of the Del Día collection: The Cotopaxi Tarak 20L Climbing Pack

What problem were you trying to solve for with Del Día?

We recognize that supply chain is a major lever where change is made. We saw two major issues in the production of high-end outdoors products: one is that it’s extremely wasteful. There are whole sections of warehouses that are full of waste materials. Product sits there forever, or just goes into a landfill.

Second, these sewers in the Philippines are artisans. They’re highly skillful and very good at what they do. Yet, in all of the products we use, a lot of people don't have that mindfulness and that awareness that there’s a person behind it. They think, “maybe a machine made it—I don’t know, I don’t really care.” And we wanted to connect consumers with the unsung people who were making their products—the heroes on the production floor.

What kind of guidance did you give your sewers?

It’s a simple daypack, but with lots of panels, pockets, and straps, so there are hundreds of thousands of combinations for a buckle! The only instruction we gave was that no two packs can be alike. We said, “you let your creativity shine and however you’re feeling that day—you can show that in the pack.”

The results have been absolutely incredible. We’re using exclusively scrap material and it creates a dynamic on the floor where, instead of following a pattern and making that over and over again, our artisans are the one-stop designers and creative team.

What ripple effect have you seen from handing over creative control to Del Día sewers?

It’s created this enormous enrichment and empowerment, and a real conversation starter. We hear this from our customers all the time on social media: “so many people are commenting on my pack because it really stands out.” So they, as consumers, can tell a rich story from that. It’s an example of how we can use our supply chain to make a really awesome product that gets our brand out there.

Cotopaxi beneficiaries, by James Roh.

Cotopaxi beneficiaries, by James Roh.

How far do you think that ripple can travel?

Frankly, we’re only scratching the surface with this model. There are tons and tons of excess fabric in the supply chain. We’re not worried about running out of scrap materials.

We do believe that we can take the impact on the ground much further. This product was a great example that proved that these sewers are amazing artisans, incredibly skilled, and we want to take advantage of that even more.

How are you thinking about impacting these artisans beyond the skill sets they already possess?

We're setting up a trial at our factory where our creative team is teaching the use of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and other tools they use in the design process to give these skills to the sewers, which will obviously lead to better income. It’s a trial right now but we’re really trying to find ways to add value on the ground, and transfer these skills that will enable a better lifetime income and livelihood.

There’s much more we think we can do on that front to work with communities that are underdeveloped and underserved. With the Kusa jacket, for example, we work with Bolivian farmers and use the llama fleece they’re shearing off their animals for insulation. In that way, we’re shifting value creation to these farmers and these sewers to have more of the creativity and ownership back at the farms.

Industry does have a role and business does have a role in changing the world for the better.

You designate 2% of revenue for grants. Why did you settle on that model of social impact?

We started the company on the premise that we wanted to find a way to make a difference. My co-founders and I, we had built multi-channel commerce businesses before. While it's really satisfying to build a brand and execute that in the market—you often feel like something’s missing. So for Cotopaxi, before we knew what products we would make, we wanted to incorporate impact in a solid, bulletproof, non-disruptive way. That takes the form of grant making where 2% of our sales go into philanthropy. We’re also active in volunteering in various initiatives locally, and we hold a boot-camp where we teach coding to refugees.

On an operational level, that must be tough. How are you organizing and executing this vision?

One of our first senior hires was Lindsey Kneuven, who’s our Chief Impact Officer. She’s one of the most brilliant philanthropic minds in the world. The model was very much based on Lindsey’s expertise and true, sustainable best practices in corporate philanthropic giving. It's very easy to want to do good and it’s very easy to screw it up. We’re careful to work with the right partners. Even those who have the best intentions can easily disrupt local economies if they don’t follow best practices. They’ll have impact that’s very short-lived.

Bolivian llameros provide the insulation in Cotopaxi's Kusa jackets. By James Roh.

Bolivian llameros provide the insulation in Cotopaxi's Kusa jackets. By James Roh.

How do you choose your community partners and beneficiaries?

We have very strict rules and a vetting process to find who’s proven to provide impact in the areas we work in, whether that’s under-5 child mortality, or our other issue areas. The nonprofits we work with must show they have measurable impact and improved development indicators. We’re almost agnostic to location—we have partners all over Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East—but we’re very, very rigorous in selecting nonprofits.

Who are your personal heroes, mentors, and inspires in the world of impact?

For us, as a business, we definitely look up to organizations like TOMs and Warby Parker. I think they’ve really paved the way in showing you can do good as a business and do well at the same time.

In our space, Patagonia has been around for 40+ years and Yvon [Chouinard] is an incredible human being. Very early on, he made this a conscious decision to build the business around the environment, and embed that into everything they do. That’s a big inspiration and we can firmly believe that we can build the next Patagonia for this younger generation. More personally, there are some incredible entrepreneurs whom I admire and try to surround myself with.

There are also other small organizations that are pursuing a similar intent and we’re excited to see that more entrepreneurs recognize that it’s about more than making money for yourself or your shareholders. Industry does have a role and business does have a role in changing the world for the better.

We stand up for what we believe in, and find ways to help people who were born in a really hard place.

How did your first business influence your work at Cotopaxi?

Everything's new and it's a little scary. You have a boss, an HR person, and various mentors in a corporate environment. All that's different as an entrepreneur so it can be very lonely and you need to build up a support network by bringing on advisors and mentors who can help you through that. Different types of mentors can be helpful; I think it’s super crucial to have someone who’s a few years ahead of you, is really close to your situation and remembers the emotional ups and downs and can help you through them. It’s also important to have someone who’s much more senior, much wiser and has seen it all. Maybe they’re at the end of their career and have the distance to give you the 30,000 feet type feedback and advice.

The Cotopaxi flagship store in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Cotopaxi flagship store in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In what ways would you consider yourself a misfit?

Ask my mom that question because she’d probably have a better answer!

If you look at my resume, it’s pretty straightforward. I was raised in a conservative little Bavarian town. I did well in school, went into the German Special Forces, McKinsey & Co. for a few years, and then went to business school.

But my maternal grandfather, the real Misfit,  was this incredible guy who, without a college education, built this insane career with a German pharmaceutical company. After World War II, lots of German companies were expropriated and lost everything, so he made a career from rebuilding those assets all around the world. Traveling around the world was really unusual in post-war Germany.

He inspired me to be a more globally minded, conscious person. He was very giving and believed in sharing what you have with others. That was his sort of mindset or mantra, and it made me want to leave that little Bavarian town and live in Australia, Asia, and now the U.S.

In that sense, I try to take advantage of the many privileges I enjoyed growing up—in a safe environment with a great education—and find ways to give. That’s what, on a day-to-day basis, motivates not just me but everyone we bring on board. It’s very much a shared value. We stand up for what we believe in, and find ways to help people who were born in a really hard place.

Meet the MISFITs: Dig Inn by Ann Yang

Taylor Lanzet and Kristen Barnett are the dynamic duo behind sustainability and supply chain at Dig Inn — everyone's favorite vegetable celebrating restaurant. We talk about Dig Inn's farm, the multiple definitions of sustainability, and their initiatives to reduce food waste.

You can find two MISFIT flavors: Straight Up' OJ and A Better OJ in twelve of their restaurants in NYC.  Read more about our collaboration here.

MISFIT: Friends Hi! Can you both please describe the mission and vision of Dig Inn?

Taylor: Dig Inn’s mission is to serve as many vegetables to as many people as possible. We want to support the community that we are a part of — whether that's the farmers we source from or the teams that serve our food or the backend teams that work to make our restaurants run.

Kristen: The way we envision serving mostly vegetables is multifaceted. 1. We want to serve more vegetables, 2. We want to express what we think the food system should be and 3. Bring those things to life with really amazing recipes that highlight really amazing vegetables and encourage Americans to shift their pallets toward more vegetable forward dietary habits. By making that accessible and delicious, we are also incentivizing the right partners who share that same vision of making vegetables tasty, accessible and of the norm in our eating habits.

 

MISFIT: I love the idea that vegetables are the center of everything that you guys do. Can you guys explain why you think a vegetable forward and plant based diet is meaningful for our food system?

Taylor: It’s meaningful because in many ways it’s radical and not the norm. Specialty foods, which include fruits and vegetables, make up less than 2% of what’s grown in our country — that’s a really small percentage! Most restaurants in our country are not planning their meals around fruits and vegetables, let alone sourcing from local and regional farmers and partners that they know. So, in many ways, it’s radical to center a meal around vegetables because we want that 2% to grow. In our eyes, if that number is growing then more and more people will be buying vegetables and cooking in their homes. Maybe they are eating celeriac for the first time at Dig Inn, and then are comfortable enough to recognize it. For me, that’s a lot of why it’s so meaningful. We want people to be comfortable in our restaurants to try new things. We want people to feel more comfortable walking into a grocery store or farmer’s market, seeing an array of fruits and vegetables, and then filling their carts with a larger proportion of those things.

Kristen: What we focus on is changing daily habits. One way which we bring that to life is how we engage our customers in our rollouts. Our rollouts focus on the new vegetables that we are featuring in the dishes — they are seasonal, local and what is available at the time. We aren’t necessarily unveiling a new protein every roll out. What we are doing is really putting the focus on the vegetables and making those the stars of the meal and hoping that they garner excitement from our guests.

 

MISFIT: I think that the kale, curry delicata squash is universal. I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t like that. So that definitely resonates. Can you two talk about what having your own farm means for Dig Inn pushing this mission forward?

Taylor: Our farm is really the centerpiece of the food future we are building. And it’s funny, because depending on which angle you approach it from, the beginning of buying our own farm was really an effort to become better partners to the farmers we currently support. The challenges our farmers face day to day — we don’t really understand yet — and we wanted to go deeper and really experience what those challenges are from the point of view of being a grower ourselves. That being said, the most important thing for us to articulate throughout this process, is we are in the business of keeping other farmers in business. Gosh, I say that all simply because we do not want to vertically integrate and build our own supply chain. And in no way can our farm support the scale that we want our business to grow to. Simply, our farm, will be our home and our hub, where we grow food to complement our menu. We will start with speciality heirloom varieties, herbs, flowers, and trialing some forgotten vegetables varieties — our forgotten friends. Trialing is really exciting because we can then go to one of our growers and say, “Hey we have been testing out a specialty summer squash that we want to build into our menu. Will you give it a go and grow it for us?” Visioning a farm in this way, is really then about setting up systems to collaborate with other farmers and push the conversation around farm to table, because we do not just want to be one restaurant, we have 14 and are growing. Our farm will also be a training tool for all our team members. As a team member, the experience of growing and harvesting the same sweet potatoes that you’re serving in a restaurant, will make you more knowledge and passionate about the food system. Thus the educational programming of the farm will be centered around Dig Inn team members coming to the farm — because the good food movement is not just about growing food — it’s about growing farmers and training people.

 

 

MISFIT: Farming is obviously a really visceral and physical activity. Can you talk about what it was like to set up the farm? MISFIT is based in DC, and Dig Inn is based in NYC, and something that we often talk about here is the divide between rural agriculture and city life. There is a certain nostalgia attached to nature and farming that is hard to understand fully if you live in a city.

Taylor: You touch on a really good point, which is that farming is romanticized. And there is this idea that goes back to Wendell Berry, it even goes back to Thomas Jefferson, and his vision for an agrarian country. Working with the land is something that people cherish so much, and it’s a knowledge that is often passed down through bloodlines. So the process of looking for land was really interesting because as a student of food systems, the actual knowledge of recognizing what good land means — what’s sloped and needs to be leveled, how to stick your hand in the soil and know it’s black gold, when soil is too rocky — all this knowledge was never passed down to me in the traditional way. So, we had to go to experts — the farmers. I spent so much time learning from others who told me what to look for in land and the types of things that I needed to think about. I probably talked to 50 landowners and visited at least 20 properties. Of course, at first, I was like holy shit I don’t know what I am doing, but this is really fun. But then I started to get the hang of it, and sorta felt like a local real estate expert. I was just assessing land and collecting as many details as possible. It’s a lot like dating. Every piece of land is different. I kept trying to figure out what we absolutely needed in a farm, and then what types of things we could live without. So, similar to dating, right? And then you find land that meets all of your original criteria and it’s happy ever after.

 

MISFIT: So moving to a more personal note. Taylor, Kristen, what is your role and what does your day to day look like and what makes you passionate about your job? What brought you to Dig Inn?

Kristen: Starting about what makes me passionate about Dig Inn and what brought me here. I had a pretty serious health issue a year and a half ago. I had chronic lyme disease. I decided to leave my old job and in my healing process I actually decided to step away from Western medicine and the cocktail of antibiotics I was supposed to take and actually heal myself largely through dietary change and alternative remedies. So basically in three weeks I converted my diet into this crazy raw vegan diet and was drinking all of these insane green juices, wheatgrass, you name it. And in a month I made a 60 percent recovery which is pretty much unheard of related to how sick I was. I basically had this come to Jesus moment where I decided that I wanted to work for a company that shared my values. I made a list of companies that shared my values and Dig Inn was top of the list. I had been eating our food for a few years at that point, and I then found a job at Dig Inn. It has been great in the sense that I do strongly believe that Dig Inn is providing a model and a path forward where you can do vegetables at scale and make healthy eating more palatable than what it currently is or what it is often seen as. That’s what currently motivates my work every day is that I am actually living out a solution to what I see as a really big problem in our country where everyone is basically incentivized to eat crap all day. So that makes me really excited. In terms of my day to day, I am a Supply Chain Manager, so I am basically working with the culinary team as well as our restaurants and our supply center to find supply for all of the food. So that can be anything from calling our growers, making sure they have enough for the next week to send to us, to designing our projections for our menus, doing recipe costing, conducting analysis on recipe performance, doing a lot of supply chain coordination as well, understanding the logistics of our supply chain and understanding how to bring new products in like MISFIT juice, or you know a really cool variety of squash, and seeing how we are able to actually incorporate that into the system we currently have to set up.

Taylor: A huge part of our impact is our purchasing power. For example, if McDonald’s decides to bring on cage-free eggs, all of a sudden, the entire market shifts. I wanted to work with a restaurant that was actively trying to increase their purchasing power in a way that aligned with how I think food should be grown, purchased, and consumed. It’s really encouraging to see how many people are inspired by Dig Inn — and I really hope we are capturing these people who are starting to think about their food in a more thoughtful way. The most important thing we can do is continue to do our work to the best of our ability, so our guests can continue to trust us. I want everyone to be able to walk into Dig Inn and have certainty that the Dig Inn team has figured out how to source the most ethical, tasty, and nutritious food. On the day to day, I wear many hats, but my official title is Sustainability Manager. At a high level, I would say that I am most concerned with how we think about and use the term “community.” Sometimes I feel like I am a community defender; I am actively trying to figure out all the ways our decisions affect our farmers, our team members, and the community nonprofits we work with. Some days I am upstate in the Hudson Valley playing with soil and other days I am sorting through our compost at Dig Inn.

MISFIT: Can you talk more about some of the nonprofits that you guys work with?

Taylor: Waste occurs at every level of the food chain—from farm to retail. We work holistically to redirect mostly vegetables away from landfill and towards people in need. First through purchasing — we buy food that would otherwise go unharvested or uneaten because it is imperfect. At the R&D level, we always look in the pantry before planning recipes —if we can recycle something, we do. For example, we have a side made almost entirely from discarded broccoli leaves. At the operations level, we plan ahead, only cooking and preparing batches of what we need to make it through our lunch and dinner service. The last level, which is specific to a quick-service concept like ours, is very much about the marketline. This is relevant to our operations because if you walk into a Dig Inn at 9:30 PM, you want to see all the options on a full marketline, meaning you don’t want to walk into Dig Inn and only see half of the menu items —especially if you really want that kale and delicata squash! So it’s this constant struggle, to show bounty, because as consumers, and as Americans we love seeing options. In May, we started working with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. They redirect food from restaurants that would otherwise be thrown out and bring it to organizations, either homeless shelters and/or food pantries directly near by. The majority of food that gets donated to homeless shelters and food pantries is baked goods and pastries. You know, it’s really easy to put baked goods into a plastic bag and send it to a homeless shelter. If you are homeless and/or hungry you still have a right to healthy, delicious and nutritious food. This is why packing up our food and sending it to organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is so important — because the quality of food we are sending is incredible. We are sending wild salmon and antibiotic free meats, local kale salads, roasted sweet potatoes, and even avocados. In the past 6 months we have donated over 25,000 meals. And while that is inspiring in itself, the other half that has been really rewarding is the overwhelming positive response from our team members. I’ve had open and honest conversations with team members — some of who shared that family members have been food insecure, and that a program like this is so important because good food should never go to waste. Right now we are donating end of day food at half our restaurants and our goal for this year is to scale this to every restaurant. Ultimately, it’s the biggest paradox of the food system — hunger and food insecurity is growing, yet so much food is wasted — and we are grateful to the nonprofits that partner with us to help run this program.

MISFIT: Can you talk about any other sustainability initiatives you guys have going on and your vision of sustainability for the future?

Kristen: We have been working really hard on setting forth a value chain strategy. Basically, a value chain is like a supply chain but reoriented in a way in which we can achieve certain sustainability goals. Some value chain initiatives for us are using our purchasing power to purchase more ugly fruits and vegetables and wasted food. We have set forth our menu for 2017 in conjunction with the culinary team to identify key opportunities to intentionally use wasted food.

Another component of that is setting forth a “no-no growers list” — which basically sets a standard for what growers we absolutely will not purchase from based on their labor practices, pesticide usage and other factors. Basically things that go against our core values. We are working on developing that list and giving it to our distributors so we are protected from partners that do not match our value system.

We are also looking at expanding our relationships with diverse farmers in terms of working with more female owned and operated farms and people of color. And help them get access to resources and scale up accordingly.  Resolving to work with more diverse famers is something that we are really excited about for next year.

Taylor: In terms of creating sustainability across the system, our supply chain is definitely a core focus for us. We have also really stretched ourselves to think about all the other ways sustainability touches the business. For Dig Inn sustainability really means — sustainable relationships with our growers, sustainable practices in our supply chain like sourcing wasted food, and sustainability in our people focused restaurant teams. Internally we focus a lot on  building out our restaurant teams so anyone can envision building a career with us. Empowering teams and individuals to think about Dig Inn as a place where they can learn enough to maybe one day, open their own restaurant. This means exposure to labor modeling, how to build a P&L, target food costs, and how to build a value chain. On the operational side, we are really nailing down sustainability initiatives around our packaging, proper waste management systems, and increasing the amount of food we donate.  I believe that if we are doing our jobs right, then sustainability will percolate across the company — so sustainability touches and leads conversations in every department as we grow.

MISFIT: Can you guys talk about the culture of Dig Inn and how you think about scaling that culture?

Taylor: As we’ve grown, we have worked really hard to create a uniform culture, one that is the same if you are a cook in a restaurant or a designer on the support team. Most importantly, we want to build a culture that shows we are all in this together. This is part of why we are the “support” team, not corporate. First, our goal is to support the restaurants. If we are not doing our job in supporting them, then the business is not doing well. We are getting better at this, everyday, and 2017 will mostly be about making that seamless integration of our culture a priority. Our chef driven restaurants will really help us get there — because we want a novice cook to choose Dig Inn over culinary school, because they can get the same culinary training here.  

MISFIT: Who are your heroes?

Taylor: First and foremost, we are obsessed with Misfit! We think you’re the shit. Kristen and I are constantly talking about how impressive your team is and how embedded your mission is in your business model. We are truly inspired by what you guys have done in terms of building out a company that is tackling food waste.

I am really inspired by people working in the wasted food space because there are so many connections between access to nutritious food and wasted food. Big fan of Imperfect Produce and their efforts to help consumers purchase wasted food in a really scalable way. Also in awe of Karen Washington and the work she is doing for racial justice and equity in the food system. On a similar note, People’s Grocery in West Oakland, brings attention to the fact that so food injustices can be traced back to questions of racial equity and access to opportunity. And, on a more personal level, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Hillary Clinton.

Kristen: Taylor and I share a lot of role models because what else do we talk about in that corner of the office. Jordyn Lexton of Drive Change is one of my heros — they are using food as a context for training people and empowering people. She has a really powerful thing that she is doing. She is taking formerly incarcerated youth, signing them on as fellows in their program and setting them up to work in their food truck. It’s one of the top food trucks in New York City. They are using food as vehicle. What really gets me excited is seeing people use a private sector approach, and using a really good business model to impact really large change. I think taking the idea of a food truck, and using it to do something so much more, it’s a really cool project.

Taylor: Yes, I totally ditto that a million. To add on one more point — I am most inspired when people use fixing the food system as way to address other social problems. Be it waste, minimum wage, immigration rights and farmworker advocacy, or our criminal justice system. For me, when you are viewing these issues through the lens of the food system, and/or vice versa, people can understand it in a much more meaningful way, and potentially be more inspired by the intersectionality of it all.

Meet the MISFITs: Spike Mendelsohn by Ann Yang

Spike Mendelsohn: hero of the good food movement, restaurateur, policy-shaker, river surfer. He founded Good Stuff Eatery, and, last year, Chef Spike was named the inaugural Chairman of the D.C. Food Policy Council, the first of its kind in the US.  We chatted with Chef Spike about his unforgettable chili at Feeding the 5,000, why policy changes matter, and his love of river surfing.

Please break down your inspiration behind the beef heart chili at Feeding the 5,000? It was incredible.

Thanks so much.  Yeah, I had an amazing time at the event.  It was so great to see so many people volunteering for such a great cause and spreading awareness about such an important issue.  For the chili, I really wanted to be creative and show that we don’t always use all of the parts of the animal, and that there are vegetables that we can use that people don’t necessarily know about.   So cooking a chili from beef heart was something that I thought would be fun and interesting and educational and a great way to showcase how to use different parts of the cow.  That’s kind of where the inspiration came from.  At Good Stuff we make lots and lots of chili so that’s where I drew from. 

What were your impressions from Feeding the 5,000 D.C.? What surprised you, what challenged you, and what was the most enjoyable?

What I really loved about the event was that it celebrated the idea of helping out and feeding people as well as keeping in mind that we waste a lot of our food, about 40% of the food that’s produced.  There’s a lot of great produce that’s out there that’s recovered that makes a really great meal.  So for me the whole day was great because there was media, lots of people, we had some really great chefs like José Andrés—it was just a great day of awareness.  D.C. Central Kitchen feeds 5,000 people everyday with their programs, and never do we really celebrate them and what they do, so I just love how Feeding the 5,000 helped raise awareness on food recovery, food waste, and giving people a great meal, so that’s really what I enjoyed the most. 

Chef José Andrés (Think Food Group), Tristram Stuart (Feedback) & Chef Spike finish up the last of the paella at Feeding the 5,000 D.C.

Chef José Andrés (Think Food Group), Tristram Stuart (Feedback) & Chef Spike finish up the last of the paella at Feeding the 5,000 D.C.

How has your family shaped your experience of food?

We always had a home-cooked meal on our dinner table so for me so for me it was never really fast food nation on my dinner table, it was always my mother cooking a great meal.  We’d all sit around the table and eat together.  Ever since then I’ve been eternally grateful for a shared meal and cooking.  I think it’s great when people cook for friends or family, whoever you cook for, I think it always great to bring people together and have a great meal, you share great food and great conversation.  My family has been big time in the restaurant business ever since I was a little child.  I watched them, was in the kitchen, and they were a huge part of my career. 

Having been around the food industry from a young age, in what ways have you infused your personality into traditions you’ve inherited, at Good Stuff, We the Pizza, Bearnaise, in DC at least? 

I have been in the restaurant business since I was very, very young, so most people would be jaded by my age now.  But I think if I were able to identify one of the most defining points of my career, then awkwardly enough it would be my experiences as a young chef. I travelled around the world, visited the best restaurants. There was a point that fast casual wasn’t as big as it is now but I became really interested in the concept.  Instead of opening a restaurant like everyone else had done, I decided to develop a fast casual restaurant offering a really good price point and just the kind of common food that everyone is used to, but that’s the kind of food in the fast food industry, like MacDonald’s and Burger King, but making it better.  We source better ingredients that are local.  I think that was a defining moment because in 2008 not everyone was starting a fast-casual restaurant, and now in 2015 there are all different sorts and types of fast-casual restaurants.  That was an important moment for me. 

What do you make of D.C. fast-casual scene? What sets (or doesn’t set) D.C.’s food community apart from other cities?

I think what sets D.C. apart as a food scene is first we have all sorts of great chefs.  We have chefs that pioneered the restaurant scene like Michel Richard and José Andrés, just to name a few.  I think the fast-casual scene is huge in D.C. because it’s such a transient city, so that attracts a greater market for fast-casual. 

I think what makes D.C. different as far as the food scene is that we do a lot of food policy in D.C. All of the big things in policy happen on the Hill, we lobby Congress, and for chefs it’s very important to get involved in their community, to get involved in these initiatives, and really have that part of your restaurant group or your company.  It’s really important, and it’s really important to be conscious of where we source our food from, our farmers, what hurdles we can reduce to make it easier for farmers to grow food—the whole structure of food policy is very based in grassroots advocacy.  That combined with chefs, great food, and a great city is what puts D.C. in our own category. 

"It’s really important to be conscious of where we source our food from, our farmers, what hurdles we can reduce to make it easier for farmers to grow food—the whole structure of food policy is very based in grassroots advocacy." 

We were so excited to learn last year that a new D.C. Food Policy Council would be established.  What does it mean to you to be spearheading this effort and how can D.C. build a better food system?

First of all I’m honored to have the opportunity to chair the Food Policy Council.  It came a little bit out of nowhere for me so I had a lot of catching up to do as far as policy is concerned. The great thing is that D.C. already has a lot of stuff going on that no one was taking credit for or really making it known and loud, like having these events like Feeding the 5,000 or what have you.  For us, it’s very exciting, and the major piece of the legislation that were concentrating on is sustainable agriculture, urban farming development, jobs, and then the really important one, while they’re all important, is food access, food deserts, and education.  So with those four working groups and the thirteen members that make up the council, we have a lot of opportunities. 

The greatest part of it is that we have the backing of the government, as it’s a piece of legislation, honored by the Mayor.  It has the full support of some really important people who do care about our food system.  It’s about identifying the hurdles that make up the difficult parts of the food system and working together on breaking those hurdles down and making it easier to reform our entire food system.  So that’s really, really great.  The future of food policy in D.C. can set the standards for other food policy councils across the nation.  I think we could be looked at as a role model and a leader in this space, especially working towards food access.

"The future of food policy in D.C. can set the standards for other food policy councils across the nation." 

We can also build off existing work that’s been done like the Emerson Act, that Bill Clinton pushed—way ahead of his time—to reduce barriers to donating food.  I think we need to look critically at food policy we already have in place to identify positive aspects while also recognizing ways we could change our food system.  I think it’s really interesting that we have a piece of legislation out right now on food waste and it clearly spells out that you will be protected if you donate food under all circumstances. 

That’s awesome.  As a chef heading up this food council, I’m curious what you think of our respective roles as chefs, government, and consumers?  

I think the role of government is to help inspire innovation within our food system.  This is very helpful with grants and backing of creative ways to fix it.  That’s really important for government to do that part as far as that’s concerned.  As chefs, it’s important that we act as advocates on behalf of food.  We respect food within our businesses, we buy from farmers, we store the food in our own restaurants, we prepare it properly, we wash it, after we prepare it we store it again to ensure that it stays, and then we serve it and sell it.  To us, if anything goes to waste in our kitchen, you’re throwing money into the garbage.  Also, the other part of it is that the consumers really trust the chefs and the restaurant that they’re going to.

So when we’re out their advocating, we are the most trusted voices.  Chefs already realize that, and we’re realizing it even more.  Every time I do an event, or every time I’m lobbying Congress, I share my firsthand experiences as a chef—that can help communicate the story of food, so that’s really cool.

Speaking to that point how chefs can be the primary advocates for better food policy given their experience in the kitchen and how food is essential for all of the work that you do, how have you tried to reduce food waste within your restaurants? How did you conceive of making a veggie burger out of pulp?

Like I said, at our restaurants, we always do what we can to not waste any food so we’ve built this into our DNA, in our system.  What we can do as chefs, is we can help promote the idea of serving appropriate portions, not going too crazy, and pricing them appropriately.  We can also help by offering to-go containers so people can bring their food home if they don’t finish their meal, so they can repurpose it for another meal or what have you, so it doesn’t go to waste.  We can also be working with different groups like I have been with the veggie burger, and we come up with a couple of items on our menu that are made up of redistributed food, or repurposed food, or things that used in a different way. 

So for example, the veggie pulp, the pulp we get from making our juice, would normally go to waste.  So the idea of taking the pulp and mixing it with some faro that I have from another dish in my restaurant and mixing up Worcestershire sauce, and other ingredients, to make a delicious veggie burger, that’s full of protein, that’s a very repurposed kind of waste that would go into the garbage.  For a chef, that’s great for the food costs.  At our restaurant for every beet juice we sell we get three veggie burgers out of it.  Just thinking out of the box and being aware. 

I also think that the biggest thing is that for us it’s very easy as chefs to say, "Hey you guys need to cook more, for your friends, your family", but we also forget that cooking can be really daunting to people.  We’re so used to it because we do it every single day but it can be really, really daunting to people.  So also doing more cooking lessons and showing people how to cook is also really greats and affects food waste because if more people are educated on how cook, less people will be afraid to cook, so they’ll use the raw ingredients, repurpose them and cook more. 

That’s awesome. The veggie pulp question definitely speaks to us. Our last question is kind of a ringer in here. We see that you’re really into river surfing and we were curious to know how that came about?

I don’t love the gym but I do enjoying surfing a lot, and by surfing I mean with beaches and warm water.  The unfortunate part is that we don’t really have a beach here.  We’re a good two and a half hours drive from a beach but we do have the beautiful Great Falls in Virginia.  I’ve met up with a couple of crew members; we have a crew of about twelve guys out there.  It got started by some local guys in D.C. Yeah, I mean we put wetsuits on and lifejackets and helmets and we go into the river, and we go into the waves, and we have lots of fun.  I’ll tell you, it’s one of the most thrilling sports I’ve ever done.  It uses absolutely every part of your body—you have to have balance, you struggle, and then when you get kicked off your board, or have to paddle out from the river, and it’s intense but it’s a lot of fun.  I do it in early the morning to get the day going.

That’s a pretty intense start to your morning.  I think most people would settle for a coffee and a crossword but that’s awesome, man. 

It’s all that veggie pulp—it’s really, really great.

Meet the MISFITs: Jordan Figueiredo by Ann Yang

Sustainability specialist by day, food waste warrior by night-- Jordan Figueiredo makes ugly fruits and veggies come alive through the "UglyFruitAndVeg" campaign.  

The social media campaign educates consumers about food waste by turning pictures of misfit fruits and veggies into characters and hilarious puns. With 70k followers on Twitter and 30k followers on Instagram, Jordan's reimagining storytelling around food waste. 

 

Why ugly fruit and veggies? What was your life like before you became a leading advocate for fighting produce prejudice?

I come from a zero-waste world, that’s my day job—working with a small town to reduce waste in businesses and schools, I do workshops, I speak at schools and I also work on setting up the composting and recycling systems with businesses and schools.  A few years ago a lot of people in that industry were content with just composting the food that was going to waste, but I wanted to do more about that.  I developed The Zero Food Waste Forum with Dana Gunders and then while I was developing that I also did Feeding the 5,000 Oakland.  After all of those events I kind of wondered what I was going to do to keep going and the more I developed Feeding the 5,000 Oakland, the more I was struck with how much produce waste was happening. 

I decided to develop “UglyFruitAndVeg” as a way to draw attention to the issue because not many people were talking about it.  There were a lot of articles but they were primarily consumer focused and I thought more attention needed to be drawn to this low-hanging fruit issue up the supply chain.  There were plenty of funny images out there and I just started to pull from those and gather some of my own from farmers market hauls, and then it just took on a life of its own.  It’s only been about a year and a half.

That’s unbelievable; you’ve gained so much traction in such a short span of time.

Thanks yeah, it’s just amazing.  It resonates with people so well.  Once you tell people that we’re wasting all of this produce for really ridiculous reasons, they’re on board to help reduce it.  And then of course they see the images and then want to follow, they think it’s fun, they want to share their pictures. I hear people telling me all of the time, “I think of you when I see ugly produce,” or they’re like “Look what I found in the market or look what I found in the store.”

"Pomegranate Frowny Face" 

"Pomegranate Frowny Face" 

 "Once you tell people that we’re wasting all of this produce for really ridiculous reasons, they’re on board to help reduce it."

What are your thoughts on the new “Save the Food Campaign”?  Do you think it will help gain more traction on food waste and get more people captivated by the issue of food waste?

 I think it’s definitely great to have the Ad Council on board with the “end food waste” movement and they’re leveraging a lot of funding and partnerships to get that message out to a lot of people. We’ve had a crazy amount of media over the last year and a half, not just for ugly produce but for food waste in general, so we’ve reached millions and millions of people.  But even still, with all of that media it’s so hard to reach everybody so I think the Ad Council and NRDC Campaign is going to be huge. Obviously it’s consumer focused again, but it’s going to be able to reach so many people. I mean the first video is great!

Yeah, “the Life and Times of a Strawberry” is so cute!

It is! And I think what they’re trying to do also is leverage all of the potential local programs they can plug into so all of their resources can be sort of repurposed or reused by cities and counties and states.  So hopefully, that’s where they can really get the traction.  Commercials have a shelf life and can only reach so many people so hopefully it’s their resources and content getting reused by people, which could be really huge, because a lot of local programs don’t really work on food waste and there’s only 5% of the country composting and then in the rest of the country, not many people are working on preventing food waste right now, so it could be very impactful.

Prior to the “Save the Food” campaign you were one of the only campaigns that was really reaching out to civil society groups and trying to become a popular movement that anyone could get involved in.  Have individuals, faith communities, or other groups reached out to you as well to come speak? Beyond your own community waste initiatives has it gained traction in that way?

The petition got a lot of interest by all kinds of different folks that think that Walmart and Whole Foods should be selling ugly produce without wasting it.  There’s actually one interfaith council in Ann Arbor, Michigan that took it upon themselves to gather signatures and petition their local Whole Foods so that was pretty cool—I think they got a few hundred signatures.  Someone else in Chicago petitioned through Change.org a local market and it got around 5,000 signatures so that was cool.  And yeah I’ve been offered to speak at many different places. 

The tough part is, I do all of this with my own free time. So it’s another 20-30 hour a week job I don’t get paid anything for.  99% of what I do is for free so I can’t necessarily go speak somewhere if they can’t pay for hotel and airfare, so there have been a number of times when people have wanted me to speak and I haven’t been able to pay for it myself. Only now am I sort of starting to explore partnerships with like-minded companies.   

But there are some! I am going to a conference in Denver in July and it’s this International Baccalaureate student convention, so I’m speaking to students there.  Some private school in Southern California wants me to speak later in the year so that will be interesting.  The message really resonates well with students so I’m hoping that that will expand more.  But most of the places I am speaking at are industry.  I’m going to keynote at a recycling association conference in Oregon in June, I’m also speaking at a session at Harvard’s Reduce and Recover Event. The unfortunate part is most of my speaking arrangements are at foodie focused events, so I hope it can expand some more.

How did you decide to use Change.org as a platform? Were there other ways you previously thought about to disseminate more information about food waste and ugly fruits and veggies?

Obviously the reason why I use the images is to draw people in and then talk more about the issue. I’ve been able to expand it to more than just ugly produce. I post articles all the time about food waste in general, or tips to reduce food waste and promoting good organizations doing so. I had been doing it for about 8 – 10 months and I was like, “Wow, look at all these people paying attention, I’ve got to do something more than just get media and followers and have people re-post stuff.” So when I talked to a bunch of people who know about activism, they said you should definitely do a petition to a couple large grocers. So that’s kind of how it developed, because I wanted to do more, I wanted to make more of an impact. I only have so much time, that the petition was a great way to leverage and rally consumer demand more for the produce that grocers said people won’t buy.

"The Shy Okra Alligator"

"The Shy Okra Alligator"

"I wanted to do more, I wanted to make more of an impact. I only have so much time, that the petition was a great way to leverage and rally consumer demand more for the produce that grocers said people won’t buy."

What does it feel like now to have had some wins? Does it get you more motivated to keep going, or is it just a small step on a long road?

It is exciting. Whole Foods Market just started selling the bags of imperfect mandarins and then “ugly” baby potatoes the other day, which is cool that they’re starting. But it’s such a small step, there’s plenty more to do and plenty more grocers. It is at least encouraging that finally the U.S. is trying it because there’s been so much action in Europe and even in Canada. I think one of their second largest grocers selling imperfect produce all over the country. In food waste in general, there’s been so much more awareness since I started this campaign. That was the other thing too – trying to get the attention of the foodie culture. A lot of food waste still has that yuck factor, or it’s not sexy like baking cakes is. So that’s why I wanted to show ugly produce or funny-looking produce to real foodies, who love food in any shape or form. Still, a lot of the chefs or folks who take this cause on, do one thing and then they stop and move on to something else, thinking they can come back to it later. But we really need people with large audiences – kind of like Dan Barber has – and make food waste more sexy than it is. The foodie culture is so vibrant and growing, and now they’re even getting involved in politics more, but food waste is not quite on that level. But it could be.

"Birds of Fruit"

"Birds of Fruit"

"I wanted to show ugly produce or funny-looking produce to real foodies, who love food in any shape or form."

Do you ever worry that food waste will be a fleeting issue?

I did. When we first started getting a ton of attention on ugly produce, I thought, “Oh man, I hope this doesn’t fade.” It’s been over a year and a half and the media is still pretty good. I don’t think it will fade any more, I think this is here to stay. Especially when you’ve got things like the ReFed Report, and all the industry folks and resources that went into that. And then the “Save the Food Campaign” by NRDC and the Ad Council – there’s a lot of resources going into preventing food waste now. And the media just keeps running stories, it’s almost like they can’t get enough ugly produce stories. I don’t want to speak too soon but it sounds like it’s here to stay.

Right, if you Google “food waste” on any given day, there will be 5 new articles on the issue.

If we keep tapping into what makes it more interesting, then it will stay an issue. I think the problem with what happened before – about 1 or 2 years ago – is it was too focused on composting. That’s not inspiring, that’s not engaging people enough. Only 5% of the country can even do it without their own curbside bin. Of course there’s so much more that needs to be done, the goal of the USDA and EPA to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030 is a pipe dream compared to where we’re at now.

But it’s still the first-ever national target on food waste reduction, which is pretty exciting.

It is exciting! But I wish they would be doing more and funding more. A lot of what the USDA and EPA do is talk about it, connect people or share best practices. But they don’t put enough money into it, or complete enough studies or reports. It’s more sharing stories and talking about it, and then setting a big goal. They need to do more about it, not depend on everybody else.  

What gets your creativity pumping? You never seem to run out of quirky ways to bring ugly fruit and veggies to life. How do you stay creative and remain excited about this issue?

It is interesting how it just keeps coming. I actually didn’t even script my posts for a long time and now I’ve started typing them out in advance, I’ve only been doing that for about the past year or so. I used to just do them off the top of my head, but after I got so many followers I was like, “I need to pay more attention,” because some of the posts don’t exactly perform as well as they could.

It’s amazing the shapes and forms and colors in nature. This is how fruits and vegetables grow naturally, and it’s all over the world. People send me pictures from all over the world and I get stuff every day where I’m like, “Wow that’s awesome!” I also am getting obsessed myself, I go to the farmer’s market and try to find things. I didn’t used to eat nearly as much produce as I do now; the last year and a half has been transformative for both me and my family. My son thinks that fruit is a dessert, and that’s pretty much what he gets for most desserts. Now we’re getting into smoothies more and I’m secretly throwing kale into his smoothies because he hates salad. He’s only 5 and he won’t eat any lettuce whatsoever but if I throw kale into the smoothie, he’ll eat it.

There’s just so many fruits and vegetables and they come in so many amazing shapes and forms. Of course I’m really lucky to live in California where we have everything – it’s insane. Nature provides all the inspiration I need. But of course, pop culture is in there too. I try to keep it only the most recognizable pop culture references.

We love your posts, they’re so entertaining but also it’s a great way to learn about the new kinds of fruits and veggies that are out there and about produce in general.  

I keep learning more too; I hardly knew anything about produce before I started this. But I think that’s part of the amazing gift of celebrating all of these imperfections in fruits and vegetables, it really makes eating fruits and vegetables more interesting. Now I get all of these people telling me they’re trying to buy different-looking fruits and vegetables so they are really appreciating them more for looking funny or ugly or beautiful. And then people tell me even their kids are trying to find this type of produce too. So I wish I had more time and could talk to more students, because this is another way to get kids to eat more produce too. I didn’t even know until a few months ago that only 13% of Americans eat enough produce. It’s not just kids, it’s adults too.

"Daikon Radish Lady"

"Daikon Radish Lady"

"I think that’s part of the amazing gift of celebrating all of these imperfections in fruits and vegetables, it really makes eating fruits and vegetables more interesting."

It seems like Berkeley and Oakland have been areas with a lot of action on food waste, including Feeding the 5000 Oakland and Imperfect Produce. Can you tell us East Coasters about how the West Coast has been at the forefront of combating food waste and what lessons we can learn from them?  

I don’t know if it’s a function of the West Coast having a lot of produce, or environmental activists, or a lot of foodies, or if it’s because of folks here that are a lot more familiar with composting than most other places in the country. It’s a mixture of all of it; we just have this perfect combination of people who want to do good for the environment, people who love food, and we have a lot of governments that get it, which really helps. There are a lot of great non-profits here as well as NRDC, which has offices on both coasts. It’s a mixture of a lot of things that make it a great place to attack this issue. Having half of the country’s produce grown in California definitely makes it an easier target. Food waste action is pretty strong here in lots of ways; the governments here are involved way more than most places in the country. They weren’t a few years ago, but now they are so it’s pretty cool.

We’re a little envious of the West Coast sometimes, because although there are definitely people in DC and New York who are interested in food waste, the conversations tend to be more technical and academic, versus on the West Coast where people aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.   

We’ve got all the “dirty hippies” out here (jokingly) who are diving in dumpsters! I’ve been dumpster diving and eaten food from dumpsters before, so it’s a different culture out here. We’re not afraid to get dirty to make an impact, that’s for sure.

Meet the MISFITs: Elyse Cohen by Ann Yang

Official White House Photo

Official White House Photo

Elyse Cohen served as the first-ever Deputy Director of Let's Move!, the First Lady's initiative to raise a healthier generation of kids. A role she served in for two years, Let's Move! engages the public and private sectors, and is also a driving force behind critical food policies. As the sun sets on the Obama administration, we look at the lasting impacts of the White House to make it easier for American families to make healthier choices. 

How did your passions for food systems and public health develop?

I’m fortunate in that my passion for this work is both personal and professional, which I believe helps to keep me so committed and devoted to this work.  Food is something that’s so universal. From basic nourishment to being a conduit for creating opportunities that bring diverse groups of people together, food is always the focal point. For many it’s a source of struggle and for others it’s often associated with some of life’s favorite moments, but food is a necessity and should be available, in its best form, to everyone. I think there is both tremendous opportunity and need to improve our food system on a national and even global scale.  If we don’t collectively work on improving our food system, we’re going to run up against even more challenges to nourish our planet and people. My personal passion for cooking, bringing people together around good food and conversation, and interest in how food impacts our lifestyle and health, have also played a key role in my passion for this work.  

My interest in all of this started over a decade ago when I learned what a critical crisis childhood obesity was in our country.  I knew this was something I wanted to work on, and so, I began this journey of working towards solutions that could help solve this problem. Much of my work was through the lens of social marketing and behavior change. As many of us do, I quickly learned how complex this issue was. There’s no quick fix for solving a challenge like this because there are so many factors that contribute to it. Actually making change requires work and commitment from every sector of our population--from business leaders to policy makers, non-profits, community leaders, school professionals, and entrepreneurs. Each sector of society plays a unique role in improving the way we grow, process, access, price, educate, and even market our food. They all need to be involved if we want to truly make an impact.   

As you know, we live in a country at time when one in five children live in food insecure homes, one in three in our city.  At the same time, we are facing childhood obesity and more than one in three children and adolescents are overweight or obese.  What do you make of these statistics, how did we get here, and how do we move forward?  

The two have become increasingly interconnected.  It’s hard to talk about childhood obesity without talking about food insecurity.  I think a lot of this comes down to a need to reinvent our food system--work that so many people have dedicated their lives to.  It’s no longer just about what kids are eating, it’s much bigger than that.  It’s about how our food is grown, how our food is processed, how our food is priced, how our food is accessed, and even how our food is marketed, to kids and families.  We need to continue to work toward making it easier for American families to make healthier choices, and all these factors play an important role in this. These statistics are true and startling.  These are statistics that have taken years to create so it’s certainly going to take many more years of hard work, innovation and investment to overcome.

strawberries.jpeg

"It’s no longer just about what kids are eating, it’s much bigger than that.  It’s about how our food is grown, how our food is processed, how our food is priced, how our food is accessed, and even how our food is marketed, to kids and families."

For the first time in years, new data was released from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention back in 2014 that showed a significant decline in obesity in children ages two to five.  Statistics like these are promising, but we still have a long way to go.  We’re seeing an increase and innovation and technology and I think we’ll continue to see a lot more over the next 10-20 years. We’re at an exciting time in the food movement where we’re just beginning to see traction and really need to keep putting energy and creativity into this work.  

Can you tell us more about the Let’s Move! Initiative and how it got off the ground?

Let’s Move! is First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to help America raise a healthy generation of kids and families by making it easier for families to make healthy choices.  Because we know there’s no magic bullet when it comes to solving for obesity and health, Let’s Move! really works to employ a diverse set of strategies and tactics, from working to push for food policies, such as new school lunch standards, through collaborating with the private sector on public-private partnerships that bring accountability and change to the food industry, to working with celebrities and athletes to support marketing of healthier products to kids. 

Let’s Move! was launched in February of 2010.  The story behind it is that not so long ago the First Lady was a busy working mom with a husband who frequently traveled.  She was struggling to keep her daughters healthy just like other parents around the country.  This, combined with some guidance from her then-pediatrician, quickly made her realize that if she was struggling with these challenges, surely other families around the country were struggling too.  It was during this time that she decided, if then-Senator Barack Obama won the presidential election, she was going to make it a priority to help raise awareness and support for this work…and that’s just what she did.

 

Photos from the White House Kitchen Garden courtesy of Elyse

She began a national conversation about childhood obesity when she broke ground speaking at the White House Kitchen Garden eight years ago, with children from a local elementary school.  This conversation quickly grew into what is now the Let’s Move! initiative.  Since then the White House Kitchen Garden has engaged hundreds of children and inspired communities and schools across the country to create their very own garden.  By engaging kids with food, they’re more likely to try new fruits and vegetables, and that’s been a big step forward in helping kids eat healthier.  As part of Let’s Move!, the First Lady has planted and harvested the garden with kids each year followed by preparing and eating a healthy meal together with the kids that are in the garden.

To this day, the White House chefs are guided by the garden when it comes to making meals for the First Family, and for official functions like state dinners.  Produce that isn’t used is donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a local organization that prepares fresh, healthy meals for the homeless.  The White House Kitchen garden also happens to be my favorite place to spend time on the White House grounds.

How did Michelle Obama’s work on nutrition and health relate to efforts of the former White House chef Sam Kass on food policy, specifically addressing food waste?

Sam has known the First Lady for a long time, and I think knowing her well, as well as knowing the issues that face our country, has enhanced his ability to affect change in a positive way and turn those goals into reality, be it food policy, food waste, or other important issues that impact us. 

Can you tell us more about the strategies you employ to create a shift in popular perceptions of nutrition while also changing American nutrition policy?  When is it more effective to be outwardly facing versus doing behind the scenes work with members of Congress to formulate better policy?  

This is a great question and was a critical part of my job.  It was a balancing act and often one addressed with great care.  I think there’s always an important role for innovative and savvy marketing and communication strategies when it comes to disseminating difficult and complex information.  This administration has taken on digital strategies effectively in many forms and it all really comes back to knowing who your audience is and using creative tactics to deliver information to the American people in a way that resonates (and pitching the First Lady on it, of course).  For example, we won’t talk about nutrition policy to parents in the same way we talk about it to health advocates who work on these policies day in and day out.  We also know that if Lebron James thinks eating an apple is cool and impacts his performance on and off the courts, kids will too.  The same could be said about communicating important information about the Affordable Care Act or immigration. 

The First Lady is truly our best asset in amplifying our message. What you see is what you get…she’s authentic and she’s passionate and she has a real talent for connecting with her audience.  So if moving the needle on this work means dancing with a turnip, mom-dancing on Jimmy Fallon, or breaking it down with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s always up for it. If it means delivering a powerful speech to a room full of high-level stakeholders and press, she’s up for that too. That’s a power and influence that you just can’t replace.

"If moving the needle on this work means dancing with a turnip, mom-dancing on Jimmy Fallon, or breaking it down with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s always up for it. If it means delivering a powerful speech to a room full of high-level stakeholders and press, she’s up for that too."

We loved the Michelle Obama turnip video—she’s amazing.  Getting to more of the policy side, In Politico’s, “The Great FLOTUS food fight,” Michelle Obama’s efforts are described as “a modern example of how a White House spouse can use her unelected platform to wage a genuine Washington policy fight.”  Why is pushing for a healthier and a more inclusive food policy a fight?  

That’s a great question, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. To an extent, many important issues somehow become controversial because change on any level takes time and resources. There are always going to be conflicting views and strong opinions. For Let’s Move! and the First Lady, it’s about changing the health of this country and doing everything in her power to make this possible.

tomatoes mo.jpeg

"Consumers and voters are ultimately the ones who need to drive these changes." 

There’s not actually a large political movement around food. There’s been very little, if any, mention of food policy in the campaigns of both front runners in this year’s election. This is something we’re making some progress on more at the grassroots and local level as we see the formation of local food policy councils and many other efforts that are incredibly promising. We’re even seeing other key influencers like chefs take a stand on this and utilize their platforms to push a lot of this work forward, but no one is actually voting on any of this right now, and that’s a real problem.  We need people to care about this.  Consumers and voters are ultimately the ones who need to drive these changes.  We can’t expect them to care about these issues if they don’t know about these issues. 

When it comes to potential “opponents”, how can private sector actors, who may be motivated to make unhealthy, addictive foods for profits, be crucial actors in reforming our food system?  Michelle Obama seems to have been particularly good at bringing in the private sector to food reform.

We prioritized this a lot in our work, and I think that’s part of the transformation we’re seeing in the food industry-- is that consumers do drive business and we know that, at the end of the day, businesses need to make a profit and consumers drive these profits.  What’s exciting is that purchasing behaviors and consumer demands are starting to shift—we’re slowly starting to get to a place where what’s good for consumers can also be good for business. I believe this really is possible. Consumers are increasingly looking for transparency, sustainability, and quality in their food. And they’re certainly looking for it to be easily accessible and affordable. This is also where a support for farmers and innovation around agriculture and supply chain comes into play.

I don’t think we can have a conversation anymore about reforming our food system without including the private sector.  They’re the ones producing our food, processing our food and feeding us so they certainly play an important role in reforming our system.  I’m thrilled about the changes we’ve been seeing and I recognize they’re not easy…bigger food companies are slowly seeing the need to make changes to their products, processes, and marketing, and smaller, newer food companies, social entrepreneurs and start-ups are forward-thinking and truly building brands and companies around a mission that aligns with good food, good health, and social impact.  MISFIT could even be an example of this, taking on the critical problem of food waste in our country and building a business that aims to create a shared value.  They’re providing nourishing, better-for-you products for consumers while tackling food waste.  I think we’re seeing an increase in that across the board, and it’s exciting.

That’s interesting to see how the paradigm on food is shifting.  Working at the intersection of the public and private sectors, food and health, social missions and strategic partnerships, how do you build relationships and drive impact?

We’re seeing more examples of innovative ways to solve social issues and really bring to bear the resources of private sector institutions with many of the social issues that the public sector is working on.  The old-school term “corporate social responsibility” is becoming more mainstream, particularly in the food movement. It’s critical to seek out a win-win for both parties. The private sector can often bring innovation, technology, and additional resources to a lot of this work.

And companies that may not be embedding these sorts of missions within their core business are increasingly creating private-public partnerships or formal commitments that position the company to “do better”.  Whether it’s around food waste, making it easier for families to cook, providing access to healthy prepared meals, ensuring sustainable and transparent food practices, we’re seeing it more and many of these efforts involve bridging the public and private sectors together. There’s an incredible opportunity to leverage technology, innovation, and additional resources in the private sector, in ways that support creating “better-for-you” brands.   

What are some memorable or exciting moments from your time at Let’s move! or insights you gained?

 This is always a tough one! I can honestly say that everyday serving the country and the First Lady was rewarding and exciting, and sometimes I would have to pinch myself when I looked around and remembered where I was. Working for the First Lady is incredibly personal. No two days were ever the same.  Some days started in the garden, followed by executing an event with Elmo and Big Bird, briefing the First Lady on an important new initiative, and ending the day with a room full of CEOs.  But at the end of the day, (whatever time that was), I knew that every part of my day involved working to push this work forward...something that I was deeply passionate about and committed to…and I had the First Lady of the United States to help me do this.

As for the exciting moments, there are certainly many.  The first time I met the President was while I rushing to meet with the First Lady for the first time.  The first time I bumped into Bo and Sunny was during my first visit to the East Wing, while I was waiting to meet with the First Lady’s Chief of Staff for an interview.  I will never forget those moments.

I also remember the first time the First Lady delivered a Let’s Move! speech that I had worked on.  There’s really nothing like hearing the First Lady read words that you so carefully crafted. No matter how many times you work on speeches, talking points, videos, it really never gets old.

Thinking about the biggest insights gained, one of the biggest insights was how incredibly in-demand the First Lady and Let’s Move! are and how small her teams are. The folks working behind the scenes are small and their hands are in absolutely everything the First Lady is working on.  We get an unbelievable amount of requests and opportunities and we really have to weigh each one out carefully.  We want to be sure that we use the First Lady’s time strategically in a way that is impactful and reaches everyone that we’re trying to reach. Her time is so valuable.

We can imagine it must have been such an interesting job and such a fascinating time to work at the White House.  As the Obama administration comes to an end what are the lasting impacts of the Let’s Move! Initiative, policy-wise and culturally? Is there institutional capacity and momentum from the Let’s Move! Initiative?

Momentum, absolutely, momentum is strong.  It is all of our jobs to keep this work going in different ways and policy-wise, the list is long.  I don’t think there’s an administration or First Lady in history that’s really done more for our food system or the health of our nation’s kids than First Lady Michelle Obama.  From reforming our school lunch environment to pushing for more transparency and change around food to education and support for nutrition assistance programs, and many others…she’s been a force behind it all. 

I also think the First Lady and Let’s Move! has truly transformed the culture and conversation around food and health in our country. She is committed to this work for the long haul, well beyond her time in the White House. This is something she cares deeply about, and we are fortunate to have her voice and dedication to this work.

Michelle Obama sowing seeds in the White House Garden pc: Let's Move! Facebook Page

Michelle Obama sowing seeds in the White House Garden pc: Let's Move! Facebook Page

"I don’t think there’s an administration or First Lady in history that’s really done more for our food system or the health of our nation’s kids than First Lady Michelle Obama." 


Because of a lot of this work, we now live in a country where the food our kids find in many schools, daycares and after-school programs will support their health and productivity.  Big food companies are being driven by consumers, to be more transparent, new innovative food companies are building a brand around missions that address many of the issues in our food system, and investors and philanthropists are pursuing solutions that transform our food system.  We have conversations about a “good food movement” and “better-for-you” brands. Technology is driving new innovations in the food space and entire conferences are being dedicated to reinventing our food system and looking for ways to invest in it from the “ground” up. 

I think that the role that so many parts of our community and population are taking on and making a priority will really keep the momentum going and ensure that all of the hard work the First Lady and this Administration put in will not only not get reversed,  but actually keep moving forward. We all need to keep pushing and keep being creative.

That’s so exciting. It says a lot about Michelle Obama’s commitment to food system reform and how important this role of “First Lady” or potentially “First Man” can be! Finally, can you tell us more about how you will continue to work on tackling childhood obesity, hunger and other reforms to the food system?

I think that those of us who have focused on this work for years see this time as a real turning point. A turning point where health, food and social impact are all intersecting.  We’re on the cutting edge of really transforming our food system to make good, nutritious, and sustainably produced food accessible for all. Whether that’s through driving innovation and thought-leadership across the food industry, developing and executing sustainable food practices and policies, creating strategies that increase food access and education, reducing food waste, helping families cook more, there’s a real need for collaboration and innovation.  My position at the White House as well as my prior career positioned me to gain unique perspective and deep relationships with some of the brightest minds working on this on a national level and, see first-hand the opportunities and needs within this work. I’ll continue to work across these areas, bridging these gaps in ways that utilize my platform, relationships, and expertise to move the needle forward.

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"We’re on the cutting edge of really transforming our food system to make good, nutritious, and sustainably produced food accessible for all."

Finally, any personal or professional lessons you learned about yourself through your work while you were at the White House?  What was the personal growth you experienced while you were there?

 A lot. I was the first person to ever take on the role of Deputy Director of Let’s Move!—the position had never existed, so that, in and of itself is an incredible way to learn and grow. You dive in deep, and it’s kind of sink or swim…so you swim! I’ve always worked in jobs where you’re juggling many things. You learn very quickly how to have your hands in absolutely everything--how to manage and lead a high-profile initiative forward while first and foremost, supporting the First Lady, your platform, and all of the demands on her, day in and day out. When you know you have the First Lady of the United States behind you, someone who is working so hard for this, it really keeps you going during some of the toughest moments. 

I think you grow tremendously in the time that you’re there.  There’s certainly a lot of pressure associated with positions like these, but the impact and power that you have to make real change in the world is pretty amazing and having the First Lady as your boss is pretty great too. The need to be flexible and calm under pressure are important qualities—as plans and news are changing constantly. We might have an event planned, but if something big happens around the world or here in the United States, it often impacts our work because the First Lady or the President will be engaged, so we’re always managing our work, but there’s a need to know much more than that.

I never dreamed of working in the White House, let alone serving as part of the First Lady’s senior staff team and helping to lead her work on an issue I cared so much about. Professionally, it’s important to have a tentative plan, a roadmap, but be flexible enough to change that path when opportunity knocks at your door. I never could have imagined that work I was doing for many years would be one that the First Lady of the United States would take on.  I feel pretty lucky for that.  Working in this position gives you unbelievable opportunities and exposure and certainly new challenges. The same could be said for other jobs, but it’s really about how you navigate them and learn throughout your career.

There’s a lot of unique aspects of working in that role and there’s no way to come out not having grown professionally. This experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.  It was and will always be an honor working for the Let’s Move! initiative. The First Lady's work on the issues of food, health, and wellness for ourselves and our children has truly transformed the national conversation and has engaged leaders from all sectors. Her innovative approach, authenticity, and passion to generate change on this issue has moved the dial more than many ever thought possible.

Is there any quote or piece of advice you would give to others along their journeys towards growth or work?

 Yes and it’s something I think I about often and try to live in my own life.  (Barbara Streisand said this first)… “Always stay true to yourself, people respond to authenticity.”

And, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you came from. Anything is possible when you work hard, believe in yourself, and surround yourself by good people. I moved to DC over a decade ago with a car full of stuff and a dream of finding the work I was passionate about. I worked three jobs in this city when I first moved here, just to make ends meet.

Lastly, find good mentors and keep in touch with them. And likewise, be a good mentor to others. Investing in someone is one of the greatest gifts you can give

First Lady Michelle Obama fighting for a better food system pc: Let's Move Facebook Page

First Lady Michelle Obama fighting for a better food system pc: Let's Move Facebook Page

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