Giving Back: Five Companies Making A Difference
From fighting a broken international food system and creating jobs in Kenya to supporting Native American causes and promotion historic preserving historic preservation here at home, these companies develop products with a purpose.
By Eva Meszaros
Specialty food companies tend to be generous with their products and their profits—often contributing to important initiatives both at home and abroad. But these five companies have made their contributions truly personal by bringing their passion and business acumen to work for causes in which they believe.
“Every day we vote for the kinds of practices that are behind the goods and services that we use,” says Kopali Organics’ co-founder Zak Zaidman, who believes in empowering the consumer to effect change. “With every dollar that we spend, we can change the world,” he explains. Read on to learn the stories behind these companies that give back in a big way.
Canaan Fair Trade
Helping Palestinian Farmers Get Their Products to Market
Canaan Fair Trade, with U.S. offices in Camas, Wash., sells olive oil and other foods produced by more than 1,700 small farmers. But helping to acquire fair-trade certification marks just the beginning of what Nasser Abufarha has done for Palestinian farming communities in the embattled city of Jenin.
Obstacles to overcome. “There is a great deal of challenge with accessibility to farms and to water resources and access to markets,” Abufarha explains. By improving access to a high-end market, Abufarha hoped to increase farmers’ earnings. His prior experience running food businesses, including Middle Eastern restaurant Shish Café in Madison, Wisc., and a doctorate in anthropology and international development guided him in creating a viable commercial market for the farmers’ products that would not only be financially successful but also socially and environmentally responsible. He recognized that establishing value in the products—through sustainable practices, organic and fair-trade certification and developing community—was what would ultimately grow the business and help support these farmers.
First products. Canaan Fair Trade initially sold olive oils in bulk until Abufarha could qualify for loans to build a bottling facility. He organized the farmers in cooperatives, establishing the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, to empower them through their work by improving technique and utilization of resources and eventually increasing output. “We grew their income through affording them a sustainable price with better trading terms, paying more promptly and collecting the harvest on time so they could take their payment and reinvest it in expanding farming activities or in other projects,” Abufarha explains.
Empowering local women. While olive oil remains Canaan’s most popular product, the entry of couscous to its offerings marked an important step in developing the community’s cooperatives.
“When we organized the farmers,” Abufarha says, “the male farmers would come to represent the family. So we ended up with very little female representation in the association.” Rather than contest tradition, Abufarha worked within it. He looked to materials typically processed by women; these included olive-oil soap, sun-dried tomatoes—and couscous. Its introduction to the Canaan line drove the inclusion of more women in the cooperatives.
Helping today. Canaan Fair Trade’s success has supported numerous projects. Through the Trees of Life program, about 80,000 olive trees have been donated to small farmers and others whose crops had been destroyed. Canaan awards 10 university scholarships annually to farmers’ children, continuing students’ community involvement through leadership roles. Donations collected by the Santa Cruz, Calif., Resource Center for Nonviolence continue to support and grow the women’s cooperatives. Micro-loans aid poorer locals, women especially, in starting their own farms.
The influence, Abufarha says, is palpable. “There is a shift in farmers’ reception to the farming activities, in that it’s worthwhile,” he notes. “They are making a living off of it.” Canaan’s products have gone so far as to affect the Palestinian market beyond its own products, exceeding the sustainable level to ensure the livelihood of farmers—and the community—persists.
Root Cellar Preserves
Promoting Historic Preservation
While it may seem obvious that a company founded on a traditional food craft, pickling, would have an appreciation for the past, it takes a special kind of passion to put 10 percent of profits and a whole lot of man-hours into historic restoration and preservation.
The beginning. Lorne and Susan Jones, the founders of Root Cellar Preserves, began their historic restoration endeavors in 2007, with a dilapidated farmhouse in rural Little Falls, N.Y. The couple had been eyeing the property for years, and one day the for-sale sign appeared. “We walked up, bought it and renovated it,” Lorne says. “It was a working farm for 175 years, and it looks as good as it’s ever looked today.”
This initial project inspired the couple to direct 10 percent of proceeds from Root Cellar’s pickling-business profits toward historic preservation.
The need. The neglect of historic properties throughout the country today belies their significance, Lorne suggests. “Most of them were hand-built, with an ax and a saw. They’re part of our heritage.” The Joneses looked for existing trusts to contribute to but found a tendency toward inner-city projects. So they created their own.
The inspiration. Much of their passion stems from a connection with tradition, which also led to the founding of Root Cellar Preserves. Lorne and Susan grew up in nearby towns, both learning the pickling traditions in their families. They married in 1998, and nostalgia set in later when they began contemplating a family business. Deciding to go with what they knew, Root Cellar Preserves debuted in 2006.
“We took our own family recipes and gave them a modern twist—spiced them up, made them chunky, put in some colored vegetables—and created a gourmet line,” Lorne says of their creative process. The pickled goods include Bread & Butter and Zesty & Sweet Pickle Chips, two of their top sellers.
Helping today. Root Cellar Preserves has since contributed to several restoration projects, financially and physically. Whether mowing the lawn and trimming the bushes of a Weston, Mass., house built in 1720 or providing barn doors and carpentry work for a farmstead in Corinth, Vt., Jones has seen a tremendous response from the small communities that otherwise lack the funding to preserve these historic relics.
“We see preserves as not only a noun but a verb,” Jones says of the aptly named business. “I think there’s an emotional connection to traditional pickled goods, preservation, tradition and Americana,” he posits, adding that positive feedback, thanks and requests have flooded the business. “We’ve made an emotional connection with a segment of the population that enjoys traditional recipes, but also enjoys the idea of maintaining our heritage.”
Advocating Sustainable Farming
A small plot of land nestled within rich, lush rain forests in Costa Rica inspired two young men to develop a brand that strives to protect such regions all over the world and restore the art of farming.
The beginning. When Zak Zaidman visited Stephen Brooks in Costa Rica, he was astonished by the farm his best friend had created in the few years Brooks had been living there, reflecting the ecological style of local farmers. “By the time I got there, it was a paradise already,” Zaidman says of the farm that fed Brooks and his neighbors.
The country’s flourishing small farms, however, butted against the quintessential unsustainable industrial farm: a banana plantation, whose crop dusters regularly poisoned the air where schoolchildren played.
The need. Zaidman describes Brooks’ plot as permaculture farming. “Everything is grown trying to mimic how it grows in nature,” he explains. The food grown in this manner, he attests, is the best in the world, thanks to healthy soil and ages-old methods. But the industrialized farms that crank out perfect fruits, favored by the global market for competitive low prices, come at a very high cost to the farmers, who too easily lose their property and are forced to work for the plantations that offer unlivable wages and ultimately damage the communities and land.
The contribution. Kopali Organics, which Zaidman and Brooks launched in 2006 with prototype products (the current line debuted in 2008) was established as a step toward fixing a food system Zaidman sees as systematically broken. The New York City–based company (with another office in Miami) sources fresh fruit and cacao from cooperative farms throughout South America and as far away as Africa, to create products that include chocolate and dried fruit treats, such as ripe, dried mango with no added sugar and chocolate-covered banana pieces that taste sweet as caramel.
The meaning of fancy food no longer refers to the elegance or exclusivity of a product, Zaidman suggests. “What makes it special or gourmet is important, but there’s this convergence now where people are considering it even more fancy if it was grown sustainably,” he observes. “I would like to think that, given the option, if somebody could eat chocolate that was delicious, that is as indulgent as it gets, but know that it actually comes from farmers who own their little piece of land or who are able to care for their families—that that’s going to taste better to them.”
Little Ragghi’s Crackers
Supporting Native American Communities
Creating foods is often a collaborative business so it isn’t surprising that the name of this company, and the passion for the Native American causes the products help support, came from a good friend of the founder.
The beginning. When gourmet retailer Guy Bashore created his own cracker to serve during wine tastings at his Berlin, Md., store, he saw a response he’d never expected. The handmade flatbread, made with extra-virgin olive oil and real Parmesan cheese and heavily seasoned with salt and pepper, quickly flew off the shelves even before having a name. “People were coming in and buying them—a bag here, a bag there, three bags at a time,” Bashore recalls.
He soon realized it was time to name the runaway success and take it beyond his shop. A long-time friend and colleague by the name of Raggatha Calentine helped every step of the way—even inspiring the product name.
Calentine is a storyteller by trade, renowned and deeply involved in Native American communities across the country. “She’s an incredible person,” Bashore professes, adding, “she never made much money because she donates her time and does it for the good of a lot of people.” Upon blurting out one afternoon that he would name the crackers for Calentine’s nickname, Little Ragghi, her initial response was hesitation.
“In the Native American community, your name is very, very important,” Bashore explains. This sparked a conversation, and ultimately the plan, to share not only her name with the product, but also her story and her values.
The cause. “I thought that if she was going to agree that I name these after her, I should pick an organization that was important to her,” and give back some of the profits, he says. Calentine, a board member for the Native American International Cau-cus Leadership Academy (NAIC), chose the Native American Family Camp, an annual event that brings together communities in support of the challenges faced by modern-day Native Americans, through education, religion (the NAIC is partnered with the United Methodist Church) and youth-focused activities.
The need. Bashore quickly became determined to help the program, which has lost much of its funding in recent years. “I think that’s what makes me so resolute, because this organization is one [in which] a little bit of money goes a long way,” he stresses.
Calentine and Bashore have worked closely on the cracker venture to reach its success today. Now appearing in Dean & Deluca and Williams-Sonoma stores, among other gourmet outlets, Little Ragghi’s Crackers is well on its way to honoring its namesake.
Ajiri Tea Company
Creating Jobs in Kenya
A desire to create long-term solutions to poverty inspired this company that not only employs women in Western Kenya, but provides an education and a sense of family for the village’s orphans—and produces an award-winning tea.
The beginning. Fresh out of Bowdoin College in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in history and environmental studies, Sara Holby dedicated her first year out of school to volunteering for a nonprofit in Kenya that provided food and medicine to HIV and AIDS patients. But as the U.S. economy entered a violent downturn, the grant- and donation-funded program suffered. “So the idea behind Ajiri Tea was to do something different from that,” Holby says.
The need. Holby spoke at length with her colleagues and the local women supported by the health program, and learned about Kenya’s unemployment rate, which in 2008, according to the CIA World Factbook, was at 40 percent.
“We started with the goal of doing something to employ women,” the young entrepreneur explains. Kenya’s major crops—black tea and bananas—inspired the key components of the product. Holby and colleagues connected with a tea-factory cooperative owned by 10,000 small-scale farmers in the region, and then turned to local women for the labeling. Starting with one employee designing a label using the vastly available banana-tree bark, Holby’s label-crafting team has grown to 63 women. In fact, ajiri means “to employ” in Swahili.
Helping today. Employees have bought cows, land, crops, electricity and furniture for their homes and funded their children to attend good schools. Further profits go to sending local orphans to school—19 are currently supported—who are personally selected by the women and the cooperative manager.
Holby hopes Ajiri’s recent awards—Best Black Tea from the World Tea Expo and a 2011 sofi™ Gold Award for Outstanding Innovation in Packaging or Design Function—will mean a boon for business and employment. “The more tea we sell, the more profits we’ll make—and the more kids we’ll be able to send to school.”
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