A taste of local food solutions in New Orleans

Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation is a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to tackle the city’s toughest challenges by supporting the creative solutions of its community members. Guest blogger Julia Stewart talks about the successes they’ve had in bringing healthy food to those who need it most.

Propellerphoto

Photo by Rush Jagoe.

While New Orleans is known for being one of America’s most vibrant, fun, and culture-rich cities, it’s also a city that struggles with health and food challenges. There are approximately 30 grocery stores for New Orleans’ 350,000 residents, a statistic that marks the city as one of the nation’s worst food deserts. We also have one of the highest obesity rates in the country.

But it’s not all despairing. One area Propeller has made substantial investment in is healthy food access. By the end of May this year, we’ll have incubated 21 new ventures, both for-profit and nonprofit, in our Social Venture Accelerator Program. A little more than half have missions related to public health and food access.

From production to distribution to consumption, each venture offers a solution to gaps in the local food system. Here are a few we’ve helped get off the ground:

  • VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, VertiFarms, and Sheaux Fresh operate aquaponic, hydroponic, and/or traditional urban farms that grow produce for grocers, community members, schools, and restaurants.
  • Jack & Jake’s food hub connects local growers with large-scale buyers such as public schools and the New Orleans Convention Center.
  • James Graham of KIPP New Orleans brought one million healthy lunches to 20% of public school children in New Orleans in our first year, revolutionizing cafeteria food.
  • “Get Fruity About Trees,” a fruit orchard in the Lower Ninth Ward, recently won PitchNOLA: Lots of Progress, our competition that sources innovative strategies to utilize the city’s vacant properties.

Collectively, in just ten months, they’ve grown over 11,300 pounds of produce for the community.

It’s been our experience that to truly change our city’s dismal health statistics, cooperation is required at all levels from policymakers to grassroots groups.

Propeller is helping by doing what we do best: incubating new ideas, identifying the roadblocks to change, and connecting the players who can make real and lasting improvements.

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To learn more about Propeller-led initiatives, visit www.GoPropeller.org. Like what they’re doing? Visit them on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Think these food solutions can work in your community? Reach out to Julia Stewart to learn more: jstewart@gopropeller.org.

Julia

Julia feels fortunate to be situated on the front lines of social innovation, helping New Orleans’ entrepreneurs transform their ideas into reality as Propeller’s Communications & Programs Manager. Julia received a B.A. in International Relations from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. In the past, Julia has worked on organic farms, and has written for several environmental publications including The Bear Deluxe, Table Magazine and Edible Vineyard.

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How one company is bringing the farmers market to you

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

Here in Portland, Oregon, farmers markets are as common as bearded guys on bikes. I know I’m lucky, and I try to go to the one nearby my house every Sunday. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. So I end up buying produce at my local supermarket. And almost always, the tomatoes and peppers I buy are pricier, and just not as fresh.

Screenshot of an online farmers market.

But what if I could get what I needed delivered to the Idealist office every week?

That’s the idea behind Farmigo, a startup that’s disrupting the traditional industrial food complex as we know it.

It works like this: you, or someone else, starts a food community at a workplace, school, community center, or anywhere you visit daily. As a member of that community, you go online to the Farmigo website and choose what seasonal items from local farmers you’d like to buy: meat, fish, vegetables, baked goods, coffee, and more. The farmers then deliver the goods on a designated pick-up day. No chemicals, no handling, no middleman – and your dinner is as fresh as a chicken’s egg.

“For the person who understands the value of eating healthy but is not able to access enough healthy food, Farmigo just made it easier,” says founder Benzi Ronen. “For the folks who have wanted to get involved and become part of the solution, Farmigo provides concrete steps to take action.”

For the farmers, logistics aren’t as worrisome anymore. “Traditionally farmers are good at growing food, and sometimes we need help with marketing, sales, information management, and more,” says Nick Papadopoulos from California’s Bloomfield Farms Organics. “Farmigo is helping alleviate a whole host of pain points for us.”

Since becoming a part of Farmigo six months ago, Bloomfield Farms Organics has been able to connect with a whole new audience both online and offline  — more people have been attending their U-Pick Sundays, for example — as well as fostered collaborations with other farmers. When Nick meets with other farmers in the state, he asks questions, shares best practices, and bonds over the shared Farmigo identity.

This all sounds good and all but you might be thinking, What about the other food systems out there?

“Farmigo complements the farmers markets and CSAs by appealing to a segment of the population that were looking for fresh-from-harvest food in a more convenient fashion. Farmigo stands on the shoulders of giants; farmers markets and CSAs,”  says Benzi.

Obstacles

A couple years ago, Benzi, a decade-long Internet entrepreneur and executive, was about to start a family. “I started thinking, What kind of food did we want to have in the house to feed our baby?” he says.

Between awareness about eating healthier on the rise, the Internet reaching a tipping point where almost everyone is connected, including farmers, and social networks empowering people to influence one another, it seemed the perfect time to launch such a company.

Still, Benzi had challenges getting Farmigo up and running:

Obstacle: Lack of knowledge about farming
Solution: While Benzi’s previous experience included building software for CSAs, he admittedly didn’t know the first thing about harvesting crops. So he went around the country to 100’s of farms and spent countless hours talking with farmers about their challenges and issues. He then created technical solutions based on those conversations.

“I’m not a fan of working in an ivory tower. I believe in quick iterations. I interviewed 20 farmers, created mock-ups, interviewed 20 more, created more mock-ups, interviewed the next 20, got more feedback. Now we are taking the same approach to figure out the best possible experience for the consumer,” he says.

Fresh seasonal produce from Monkshood Nursery in NY, a local Farmigo farm.

Obstacle: Setting up food communities
Solution: Not a fan of cold calling, Benzi’s strategy is to instead find and coach hyperlocal food evangelists who are willing to kickstart a community where they are.

He’s met with success, as companies have started to use Farmigo as a way to show staff appreciation. Brooklyn-based social media agency Carrot Creative, for example, sponsors $10 toward each Farmigo purchase as a wellness benefit. Microfinance organization Kiva orders office snacks from Farmigo, and gives credit on the site as a work incentive.

Obstacle: Cultural attitudes about online ordering
Solution: Nowadays most of us order almost everything online from books to plane tickets to flowers. But produce is still lagging, despite services like FreshDirect and Peapod.

“The way we’re tackling this is not trying to get whole world to shift and buy online. We’re focusing on gaining widespread adoption within many small communities,” says Benzi.

To get people in the habit of buying kale with the click of a button, the Farmigo team helps communities host cooking classes, recipe contests, nutritional speakers, and more, continually directing them to the online component. With farmers, it’s proving to be the reverse.

“We’re seeing that farming is now becoming the new cool profession. College graduates are excited to plow the earth but they also want to be entrepreneurs and have control of their business” he says. “These young farmers are Internet savvy and know how to use online media, social networks, and mobile applications to connect directly with their consumers. They’re pushing us to build better technological solutions for their needs.”

Obstacle: Making time for family
Solution: Benzi has one daughter, with another child on the way. “A lot of people think starting a family and raising kids are obstacles. It’s not an excuse. If you’re passionate about something, then go out and do it,” he says. It helps that he has an understanding wife who is as entrepreneurial as he is, and he’s careful not to schedule meetings during his daughter’s bathtimes or mealtimes.

Advice

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Farmigo food community delivery in action.

While only in NY and CA for now, the Farmigo family is ever-growing. Soon, they’ll be expanding to other U.S. cities and releasing a knowledge hub for farmers.

A seasoned entrepreneur, here’s how Benzi thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  1. Since entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic, have a naysayer on board. “Make sure you have a co-founder or life partner who is critical of your ideas and pushes you to tests assumptions,” says Benzi.
  2. If you have a critical component to your success, it’s important to have multiple alternatives. If you have a partner who is absolutely crucial, have a back-up. Have two customers? Have a third ready. “It makes you much stronger. Because things will always go wrong,” he says.
  3. Enjoy the process. With Benzi’s other ventures, it was all about the end goal of creating a company. “In my last start-up there were long periods of time that weren’t fun. It sounds cliché, but this time around it’s about the journey itself,” he says.

“Farmigo’s mission is about making healthy food accessible to all households – this is something that has a benefit for society,” he finally says. “We hire our team members based on passion for our mission. This is a long and hard journey and we need people who are inspired to pour their hearts into this every day.”

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Ready to kickstart a Farmigo community of your own at your workplace, school, or community center? Get started here

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Five Ideas for Wannabe Farmers: Organic Farms, Crop Mobs, and More

By Flicker user strikeael (Creative Commons)

I’ve been dreaming about vegetable gardens lately. So what if the wildflower seeds I planted in my window boxes look more like alfalfa sprouts? Or if all of my plants have kitten-bite marks on them? No matter! To balance out my concrete-filled New York life, I like to keep my apartment an oasis of luscious, hearty green. I drool at the thought of a little plot of dirt somewhere, a place to let my inner gardener run wild. How about you? Maybe your thumbs are a bit greener than mine — why not roll up your sleeves and do some good for the community at the same time?

A while back, Hannah wrote about bringing public vegetable gardens to your community. If you live in New York City, check out GreenThumb to find a garden in your neighborhood and to get involved.

If you’d like to get out of the city, you can take a look at Crop Mob, which was recently featured in a Springwise.com article. While the movement was started in North Carolina, Crop Mobs are now sprouting up from coast to coast. Crop mobbers, “landless, wannabe farmers,” as they call themselves, adopt and work at a farm for a day. Local farms get much needed person-power, and mobbers get to work their beloved, albeit borrowed, soil.

Globally, there’s always WWOOF, (now known as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, although the organization has gone through a few name changes), and its younger cousin, Growfood.org. In return for a number of hours of help on a farm, WWOOF hosts guarantee volunteers with accommodation and food, along with opportunities to learn about the host’s home country and farming practices. Growfood.org features lists of farms looking for interns and employees as well as farms looking for traditional work-for-accommodation-volunteers. Both allow for a Facebook-type interaction between farm and participant.

With so many excuses to get your hands dirty, what are you waiting for? Let’s get farming!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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