A Catalyst to Speed Creation of Sustainable Food Entrepreneurs, Food Sol Hopes to Fix Food System
June 18, 2012 | Noelle Swan
Like so many others working toward a more sustainable food system, Rachel Greenberger says that frustration drove her to a career in food. As she shopped for food for herself, she struggled to decipher what the various certifications and labels meant. “While my priority was to put my dollars towards food manufacturing and processing that I believe in, I was still lost and I thought that there’s got to be a simpler way to understand this.”
In her research at Babson College in Wellesley, MA, Greenberger started to look into supply chain management and consumer dynamics. She was particularly interested in understanding what motivates people to pay a premium for organic, humane, sustainable, local, or similarly labeled food. To further broaden the scope of her research and develop actionable steps to improve the food system, Greenberger and Cheryl Kaiser, Executive Director of the Lewis Institute for Social Innovation & Babson Social Innovation Lab, created the Food Solutions Institute, Food Sol for short.
Greenberger describes Food Sol as a catalyst, geared toward sparking Babson’s business students into becoming sustainable food entrepreneurs. Unlike a business incubator, Food Sol does not hold entrepreneurs’ hands through discovery, financing, and labeling. Instead, Greenberger strives to connect individuals to existing resources and help them navigate specific pieces of the food system. If that sounds vague, Greenberger says that is kind of the idea. Students come to Food Sol with their own priorities and motives; Greenberger’s approach is equally individualized. “We’re going to talk with you about what you care about so you can take an action and feel empowered to do something.”
For one student, Cameron Sheldrake, Babson class of 2012, Food Sol became a central networking hub to launch his business, Sweet! Corn Tortilla Chips, made from certified non-GMO sweet corn. Sheldrake says that Greenberger helped connect him to Youth Trade, which is a collaboration between Youth Entrepreneurship and Sustainability and the Conscious Capitalism Institute designed to support and promote young entrepreneurs. Through Youth Trade, Sheldrake has been selected among 30 entrepreneurs under 35 to display their products at Whole Foods Markets.
For associate professor of finance, Richard Bliss, Food Sol has become an informational clearinghouse. Bliss says he designed his course on financing and valuing sustainability to provide a broad exposure to a wide variety of topics. Many issues that arise are changing rapidly. Ethanol, for instance, has gone from being touted as the savior of the energy crisis to being dismissed as bad for the environment. With each issue that arises, Bliss says that usually there are one or two students with extensive knowledge of the subject. He says that Food Sol has been able to point students to resources to either get up to speed on issues they know little about, or delve deeper beyond the scope of the class.
On a larger scale, Greenberger helped to coordinate Food Day at Babson last October and is working on one for this coming fall. Last year’s event drew 1000 faculty and staff members, students and visitors onto campus to dine on the main lawn under the trees. She says the idea was to create an “atmosphere of consciousness” where people were encouraged to take small portions, try new things, and talk to each other while eating. “What we found is that students are normally very transactional, grabbing, eating, and running,” she says. Through Food Day, she created a situation where students were talking to each other about food.
While Food Sol is based on Babson’s campus and therefore largely Babson-centric, Greenberger also is exploring the habits of college students at the national level. She has developed a series of surveys to understand what thought processes are involved in students’ food choices. Recognizing that social media plays a large role in the lives of students, she has helped to start a monthly online chat series with Andrew Zimmern, star of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World.
All of these projects fall under Food Sol’s broader goal of creating new market options that meet increasing demands. In keeping with Babson’s emphasis on business, Greenberger says she is committed to creating channels to help sustainable food systems achieve economic viability. “We want strong economic models, strong food designs that create delicious, healthy, fair, workable values so that consumers that are coming online to the fact that the food system is broken have options.”
As part of a 501c3 University, Food Sol is also a non-profit venture. Startup capital for one year came from a friend of the college and was recently renewed for the 2012-13 school year.