Posted 12.22.2016

Meet One Woman Saving the World through Sustainable Food

An interview with Sarah Weiner from Seedling Projects

New Resource Bank client Seedling Projects uses focused events and strategic models to engage the public in finding better ways to feed our communities. They work in step with the sustainable food movement to bring Good Food to all. Good Food is delicious, crafted by people who are treated fairly, and grown in a way that promotes a healthy, diverse environment. Seedling Projects runs the Good Food Awards, coming up in San Francisco in January. If you’d like to join, Award Ceremony tickets can be purchased here and Good Food Awards Marketplace tickets here at Fort Mason. New Resource Bank interviewed Sarah Weiner, founder of Seedling Projects and Good Food to learn more about her passion to amplify the sustainable food movement.

How did you get into the food movement?

I always loved food, and by elementary school I was also very into environmentalism. When I was in college, my mother brought home a book, “Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food,” the first English language book explained the Slow Food philosophy. The book connected the dots for me between eating well and saving the planet. It was a huge “aha” moment. I applied shortly thereafter for a grant to study at a Slow Food-run cooking school in Italy, investigating the connection between economics and access to good food. I met the Vice President of Slow Food Italy at our graduation, ended up in an internship at their headquarters in Piedmont instead of cooking in a kitchen for three months and everything unfolded from there. Each next step came naturally from the people I would meet – moving to Berkeley to work for Alice Waters after we met at Slow Food headquarters, organizing a 20,000 person organic food festival with Patrick Holden in England after we met through Alice, helping to launch Slow Food Nation which was Alice’s idea and then co-founding the Good Food Foundation with Dominic Phillips whom I met through Slow Food Nation.  I am a big believer in work hard, be nice to everyone and people will take notice and open doors for you.

What do you see as the Good Food Foundation’s role in working with food companies?

We exist to connect and bring attention and opportunities to food crafters making good, clean and fair food. Our main vehicle to bring attention is the Good Food Awards, where 200 food crafters are honored in a ceremony and public marketplace with 3,000 people each year (January 22 this year at Fort Mason Center, more details and tickets at Good Food Awards). We also feel it is our job to connect good people with other good people. This extends beyond food crafters to include retailers, activists, journalists and academics who believe as we do that triple-bottom-line businesses are the long term solution to the problems facing society. Through the four big events we organize each year, as well as the networks of the 450 businesses in the Good Food Merchants Guild and 21 Good Food Retailers Collaborative members, we create a reason and a means for food producers, retailers and all the other people involved in this work to come other in person, which we feel is so important to build collaboration and trust, as well as find each other.

What solutions do you see the sustainable food movement providing for the world?

Dig deep enough and every major problem that faces us is connected to the way we grow, value and consume food – which also means food offer a path to the solutions. This sounds like a grandiose statement, but begins to make sense when you consider that food production and distribution is the largest industry in the world. Then, factor in that food is one of a handful of fundamental, daily, non-negotiable needs of every human being – such as water and clean air. I ask are you worried about climate change? Food production is one of the largest contributors to this problem, with livestock production alone responsible for 18% of the global warming effect – more than emissions from every car, train and plain according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. How about the gradual impoverishment of rural America? An eloquent article on Civil Eats explains the systematic demise of the family farm in favor or larger and larger industrial agriculture and the resultant economic ruin of rural communities starting from mid-1950s farm policy changes. Wars are fought over food and the water needed to grow it; the conflict at Standing Rock was at its core a question of whether oil or whether the clean water needed to grow it will be prioritized. The obesity epidemic, is clearly tied to our attitudes towards food. All of these problems and more can be solved by the approach the food movement champions, of choosing food grown organically, from farmers nearby; of paying a fair price for it that sustains good jobs for the hard working people farming and preserving it; of learning about food and treating it as valuable rather than disposable.

What challenges do most food companies face and what tips do you have for them?

The owners of food businesses face both the challenges confronting any small business owner – retaining talent, understanding and accessing the right kind of capital – as well as many unique challenges. Sourcing the raw materials that meet their standards is much more challenging for a food producers than say, a paint shop. Those great peaches that made a smash hit jam last summer might not be available this year due to the different weather or blight. Another challenge faced by food producers is a disconnect between the price point most consumers are willing to pay and the true cost of creating good food (including paying the farmer and colleagues fairly). I know a well-established Good Food Award winning chocolate producer for example who says they can only continue to make chocolate because he has a spouse’s income to rely on, another living with a parent for a similar reason. These are some of the most talented producers in the country and world, selling at $8-$10 a bar, and that just barely covers their costs and doesn’t leave enough left over to sustain themselves the way a mid-level office job would. The margins are so slender in food, and raising prices often means it wouldn’t sell.

The best advice I have for food crafters is to ask questions and share their knowledge with each other. It is amazing how open most people in the community are – there is an understanding that one great jam maker isn’t competing with another for the 10% of the market that buys organic, they are both working together to educate and build a demand for tasty, authentic, responsible jam amongst the 90% of Americans who aren’t currently choosing that type. There are avenues for this, from informally at the farmers market to joining structured groups like the California Artisan Cheese Guild and Good Food Merchants Guild which have physical gatherings to an on line platform like the Provender Social Club. Regarding sourcing, we’ve built a database of sources for everything from well priced organic sugar to domestic hazelnuts and share it with any of the Good Food Award entrants and Guild Members that are looking for sources for more sustainable versions of their ingredients.

Another piece of advice is to prioritize quality relationships over quantity – for example, for a small company, a traditional tradeshow with exposure to 10,000 buyers might sound exciting, but if 90% of those buyers would need a quantity that exceeds current production and have limited bandwidth to provide a commitment to doing everything they can to get that product in front of their customers, or the flexibility on delivery timing, margins, it makes sense to consider a smaller tradeshow like the Good Food Mercantile with a few hundred retailers but every one of them used to working with smaller companies. This principle extends to where you put your time and energy: I would advise that it is better in the long run for a food crafter to invest in and prioritize great relationships with a few smaller retailers that are committed to your product and will give great shelf space and placement rather than jumping too early into a bigger order from a chain store that does not have the same investment in the company’s success.

What are the recipes for success for a food company? What can make or break them?

Build and rely on your community. Be generous and share knowledge. Start small and create a pricing and financial model that works, rather than relying on large loans or venture capital – particularly avoid venture capital, which I have never seen work successfully in creating a food business that is structurally enabled to stick to its principles. Be out there in person, in the farmers market or sampling at the stores, as you are the best educator and story teller for what you are making. Consumers need to hear what makes your food special if you expect them to choose it over a cheaper, lower quality option that on the surface looks like the same product.

What is the future of the food movement?

For a long time there has been a misconception that the great leap forward for the food movement is going to happen when organic and handmade food companies find a way to scale up at the same quality level, leveraging economies of scale to make it much cheaper and more affordable for more people. To a limited extent I believe this will happen, but the bigger change needed to sustain the food movement is on the flip side: it will come when money is more evenly distributed amongst the many hard working people in this country. The widening of the income gap we’ve seen over the last 30 years is beginning to get a lot of serious attention. With this in mind, I believe the success of the food movement lies in its ability to realize it is a small piece of a much larger movement towards equality and justice.

We cannot expect organic farmers – themselves struggling to make ends meet because it costs more to do things in a way that does not pollute or take advantage of farm workers – to lower prices. We also can not expect people who already have a hard time finding the budget to fill their shopping carts to switch en masse to food that costs more – even when it comes with many health benefits that in the long run pay for themselves, and benefits our communities.

At this point many people know about the advantages of buying local, buying organic, but if we want more sales for this type of food, we need to help close the income gap: raise the minimum wage, and create government policy in the Farm Bill to favor family farms rather than a few larger corporate farms. I also envision getting involved in immigration issues – any move to “crack down” on immigrants in America would have a devastating effect on the farming and restaurant industries where immigrants are making a huge and daily contribution.

What tips do you have for the consumers out there?

I am a huge proponent of buy less, buy better. How many half eaten jars of jam do most people have in the refrigerator? If we only buy the ones we LOVE – even if it costs a few dollars more – we would eat the whole thing, get more joy per dollar, and ultimately save money by waiting until it was fully consumer to buy another jar. Along the same vein, I recommend buying the highest quality version of the lowest cost foods to form the basis of your meals: for example, I get a fantastic California family farm grown, organic brown rice that becomes the foundation of my lunch most days (rice bowls). At $7 for a bag, it’s expensive for rice but comes out to less than $0.50 a serving and is healthy and filling and easy to make. I do the same thing with protein, buying eggs and chicken thighs most of the time – but the best quality of both. Also think about alignment in what you support ideologically and with your purchases. For example, in a relevant to current events example, how strange would it be to donate $100 to support the peaceful protestors at Standing Rock, while having tens of thousands in a savings account at one of the 17 banks that is invested in the energy company funding and thus enabling the pipeline? I try not to be in that situation in grocery store.