For Populace Hungry for Healthier Choices, Tech Solution Offers Seamless Connection to Local Farms
April 22, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
CSA’s have taken the leap into the 21st century. Community Supported Agriculture has for years been the refuge of the urban food-conscious looking for reliable, locally-sourced whole food. But small-scale operations can’t always reach a critical mass and some people can’t always take advantage of Farmers Markets. Enter Azoti.
Developed by tech entrepreneur David Ranallo, Azoti provides the internet platform that efficiently connects local farmers with local companies – and all of their employees – for quick distribution of fresh, sustainably-raised food, to a populace hungry for healthier choices.
“We need to de-commoditize food,” Ranallo said. “Azoti can help farmers with marketing, manage wellness programs for employers and fill orders for customers all at once. And when we can help farmers forecast demand, we’ll see cheaper Farmers Market-quality food.”
The tech language might come from a businessman who supervised websites for industries as diverse as the automotive and money management worlds, but the sentiment goes back to Ranallo’s Italian roots (Azoti means nitrogen – that growth spurring nutrient – in Italian). He grew up with his Italian grandparents’ home Victory Gardens as part of his motherland culture.
“I got the idea for Azoti back in 2008 during the financial crisis,” Ranallo said. “I knew energy prices would continue to go up and there would be long periods of financial and social instability. But I thought people would always need food.”
He just needed to figure out a way to actualize a platform that would connect all the relevant parties in a mutually beneficial way. So Ranallo hit on the idea of essentially developing private Farmers Markets for large corporate entities looking for wellness programs for their employees.
If he could arrange CSA-type deliveries to large groups of people in a local area, farmers would benefit from an expanded customer base, employers would benefit from healthier employees taking advantage of corporately-developed wellness programs and workers would benefit from the healthier food choices.
Ranallo launched a pilot program in 2012, offering subscription-based deliveries to large companies. It didn’t all go smoothly.
“There were some HR people I had to convince that this wasn’t some hippie thing, but really about offering good food that helps everyone involved,” Ranallo said. “This is changing the way we talk and think and buy food that’s healthier.”
Eventually, he gained some traction. Within 10 days, he sold more than 300 subscriptions to employees at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University. Two local farmers, Vanscoy Farms and Oink Moo Cluck, delivered the four-month subscription orders (at consumer-friendly prices) with pounds of vegetables and sustainably-raised meats directly to the workplace. It was so successful, the entire program extended across OSU campus.
Azoti sends subscribers an email each week, telling them what to expect in their deliveries for effective meal planning. The subscriber need only pick up his box of food when he leaves his office or classroom at the end of the day (Azoti has six drop spots on the OSU campus alone). Azoti takes a fee percentage of each subscription order.
Ranallo said the prices, the convenience of work-place (or classroom-located) drop offs and the quality of the fresh food keep demand expanding. Azoti currently works with thousands of subscribers at organizations like OSU, Grange Insurance, Safe Auto, Safelite Group, Landmark Square, the City of Columbus and Jackson Labs. Recently, they opened a program at the California Department of Health Care Services in Sacramento and now have operations in Westchester County in New York.
Companies see benefits through wellness program participation, which lowers their employee health insurance premiums. Jim Warner is the program director of Food Service Administration at the Wexner Medical Center, and is enthusiastic about the program.
“The more we talked to Azoti, the more sense it made that we offer this to our staff,” Warner said. “We are getting natural fruits and vegetables directly from the farm, which being a land grant university, ag-based economy here in Ohio, we thought it was just perfect for us to do it and a great benefit for our employees.”
Ranallo has expansive visions of where this platform could lead.
“When we get the software really developed, we want to offer Azoti to all kinds of organizations,” he said. “Schools, churches, health clubs. We’ll give them the tools to create their own co-op delivery system that engages local farmers. It helps the economy. It helps the community.”
Ranallo believes the Azoti model is the ticket to a healthier food cycle in the generations ahead. ‘Know Your Farmer’ is the mantra that keeps the company relevant and trust-worthy, and this confidence builds a client base.
“Eventually, when government subsidies go away, corporate ag will collapse,” Ranallo said. “This type of platform will be ready to take its place. And we’ll all be the better for it.”