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Disruptors Empower Consumers to Be Better Than Normal

Specialty Food Association

“As a business owner and a single father, I used to struggle to feed my kids healthy food,” said Dan Wise, founder and CEO of ready-to-eat meal delivery service RealEats America Inc. Wise spoke during an education session at Specialty Food Live!, Tuesday, alongside Lindsey Ofcacek, co-founder and managing director of The LEE Initiative and Alita Kelly, founder of South East Market. The three spoke about how they are working to improve the food system and serve up a healthier future.

Luckily for Wise and his children, one of his friends, who was also a chef, introduced him to the sous vide meal format. Essentially, food is made and then vacuum sealed in a bag for a meal that stays fresh for up to 13 days. To prepare, all Wise had to do was heat it up in boiling water and serve, creating a simple solution to a problem that many people experience every day. Out of this, Real Eats was born, making it easier for everyone to enjoy what Wise calls fresh, “real” food.

“Finding out what ‘real’ meant was the biggest project,” said Wise. “We made it our mission to define what that actually meant and we recognized how important it is to know where your food really comes from.”

With that in mind, Wise headquartered the company in Geneva, New York, a rural community with access to lots of local agriculture but no way to distribute it across the U.S. Real Eats is not only creating jobs and investing in the community, but also helping to preserve and spread the local foodways of the region.

At first, RealEats offered only ready-to-eat dishes like Dijon Mustard Steak or Sweet Teriyaki Tofu, but has quickly expanded to offer soups, drinks, snacks, and sides like organic peas or spice-roasted cauliflower. To date, the company has worked with 60 local farms, created 87 jobs, and invested $6 million in the region.

“Even though we may not know exactly what a sustainable future will look like, we believe it starts with local," Wise said.

Local sourcing is also a focus of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based South East Market, which seeks to create a more transparent shopping experience for customers. Founded by Alita Kelly in June 2020, the market places an importance on sourcing local farms and businesses that are led by women and minorities, as well as those that are actively supporting environmental sustainability. Kelly was recently named one of SFA's 2020 12 Under 35 Breakout Talent to Watch

“A lot of people are looking for more transparency in their food,” said Kelly. “We try to make it easy for people to know what type of systems they are supporting.”

With stickers identifying which brands are local to Michigan, or are BIPOC- or woman-led, customers can easily choose products that resonate with the causes they feel compelled to support. In addition, the small-format store lends itself to a more intimate experience, creating an open, educational environment that sets it apart from larger stores.

Though the retail store just opened this month, South East Market has created a wide variety of programs to help the Grand Rapids community through some of the harder months of the pandemic. For instance, the Pay It Forward program allows people to donate money to help customers buy local, pastured, organic, regenerative meat and produce that they may not ordinarily be able to afford. In addition, Soul to Soul allows customers to purchase a produce bundle and donate one to someone in need. The bundles offer a variety of produce from local (and sometimes non-local) farms, and, at times, contain prepared foods as well, to remove barriers to people trying food they aren’t familiar with.

South East Market also offers a children’s enrichment program called Freedom School, a free book cart (weather allowing), and free delivery within the market’s zip code and curbside pickup, all to remove customer barriers and improve access.

Kelly believes that by educating people on our food system and sharing the story behind the food the market offers, customers will be able to decide what kind of future they want to empower.

The LEE Initiative, founded by Lindsey Ofcacek and Chef Edward Lee, also champions a more diverse and equitable food system. LEE, an acronym for Let’s Empower Employment, was founded as a direct response to the Me Too movement, as women shared their stories of encountering bias and harassment in their careers.

Together, Ofcacek and Lee created the first LEE Initiative program, Women Chefs of Kentucky, a mentorship program for female chefs in the state. Just as the third class of the program’s mentees were announced, the pandemic hit and it became clear that the Initiative needed to switch gears.

“We thought about the restaurants that were closing and the people that were losing their jobs,” said Ofcacek. “And we reached out to partners to help us start a relief kitchen to help them.”

Within 24 hours, Ofcacek and Lee transitioned a fine dining restaurant in Louisville to a makeshift grocery store with much-needed stables and 300 prepared hot meals. A post on Instagram alerted the community to the offering and over 300 families gathered outside before the location even opened.

“We realized that this was happening all over the U.S.,” Ofcacek noted, “So we reached out again to see if we could expand.”

Working with companies such as Maker’s Mark and Audi, The LEE Initiative was able to leverage the large marketing budgets that were being unused to open 20 relief kitchens across the U.S., most of which were open for six months of the pandemic and fed over one million families.

To help restaurants reopen after being shut down by government orders, The LEE Initiative created the Restaurant Reboot Relief program, which will invest at least $1 million to purchase food from sustainable farms in 16 regions and give it directly to restaurants in those areas.

“And now we’re pivoting back to relief again,” said Ofcacek, noting the hard-hitting second wave of the pandemic. “Our Regrow program provides immediate relief to restaurants in the form of small grants to help restaurants get back on their feet.”

Related: Specialty Food Innovators Share Big Ideas for Social ChangeMichigan Startup Seeks to Showcase Local Producers.