Carla: America has a food problem.
For 1 in 8 people who live in the U.S., if they were to go to their local grocery store right now, they'd be unable to purchase fresh ingredients.
According to the USDA's most recent food access research, nearly 40 million people in the U.S. live in what are known as food deserts, or geographic areas that have little to no access to an affordable and adequate supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods. Moreover, communities of color are disproportionately affected by this issue.
Chef Chew: The access of having those products that are more healthy are not available many times in our communities. The stores aren't there, you know, they’re food deserts.
Carla: This is Chef GW Chew. On this episode, I speak with him about democratizing access to healthy ingredients through his food manufacturing business. But first, we'll hear from Cassandria Campbell who co-founded Fresh Food Generation to bring an affordable, locally sourced fresh food option to her community in Boston.
Cassandria Campbell: I think that people realize that Fresh Food Generation is part of, I want to say, almost a social experiment to prove to ourselves, ourselves meaning society, that we can have good food options that are affordable and people want to see that be successful.
Carla: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. And we’re telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Carla: Our first guest, Cassandria Campbell, is a proper Bostonian through and through.
Cassandria Campbell: Boston is a very unique space, especially if you are growing up Black in Boston.
Boston has a tremendous amount of opportunities, some of the best colleges, universities, hospitals in the world. And yet it's segregated.
Carla: Cassandria was born and raised in the historically African American and Caribbean American neighborhoods Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, after her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica.
Cassandria looks back fondly on the Caribbean food her mom made for her. But as a single parent, she also made the most out of what was available locally.
Cassandria Campbell: She often made a lot of Oodles Of Noodles because it was quick, on the fly. I loved it. I was addicted. We went through McDonald's drive-through. And after school, we would go to the pizza shop and they had this 1.99 deal where you could buy a can of Coke and a slice of pizza.
Carla: At 14 years old, Cassandria was introduced to sustainable agriculture and an entirely new world of food options through a local nonprofit called The Food Project.
Cassandria Campbell: I saw this job on a farm and I was like, “I want to do that.” I absolutely fell in love with it. It was the first time that I saw food come out of the soil. And that's when I really got into food and started to realize things like Pop-Tarts and Oodles Of Noodles aren't great and the Caribbean dishes that my mom did cook, they were great. So then there was like this huge disconnect between what was really available to me and sort of what I was interested in.
Carla: As Cassandria reflects on what food options were accessible to her growing up, she recognizes that her neighborhood could have been classified as a food desert. And when Cassandria re-established herself in Roxbury as an adult after attending MIT in Cambridge and living in places like Ghana and Ecuador, she was disappointed to see that her community's access to fresh food opportunities was still lacking.
Cassandria Campbell: There is one street in Roxbury called Martin Luther King Boulevard, and it has a YMCA, a swimming pool. It has one of the most well-utilized basketball courts in Boston. That street has a lot of physical activity designed for people to be healthy. The challenge with that street is that there are no healthy food options. So I was working out at the Roxbury YMCA, I walked out, the only option there was literally Popeye's. And I'm going into my car to be able to go over to the next neighborhood that has better options. And it's not a big deal for me, but I'm watching these kids go into Popeye's, and one of the kids was so obese that he was struggling to walk. And I just didn't think that was fair that Popeye's is his only option.
Carla: Not only is food a life essential, but it is also a powerful social determinant that impacts health, performance in school, and even the ability to generate wealth.
Carla: According to a study published in an article by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, $71 billion in healthcare costs could be saved with healthier eating. So when there are barriers to securing fresh and healthy foods, there is a ripple effect on the community.
Cassandria Campbell: If you look at Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester, the neighborhoods that I grew up in, they have the highest obesity and diabetes rates in Boston. And if you look at other neighborhoods across the country that sort of mirror these neighborhoods, by far and large, it's true. And so, food can actually shape the health outcome of a neighborhood. And so it was starting to sink in a little bit more about like all the lessons that The Food Project was trying to impart on me as a young person and that this wasn't just like about a hobby, like this is actually causing people to have a lower quality of life.
Cassandria Campbell: I think Roxbury is absolutely a beautiful neighborhood and is so rich and it's so vibrant. And I could see myself raising kids here and I want them to be able to walk down the street and either choose to eat at Popeye's or choose to eat somewhere else. I want them to have that choice. And that choice wasn't there.
Carla: And with that, Fresh Food Generation was born. In 2015, Cassandria along with her founding partner Jackson Renshaw launched the Fresh Food Generation food truck.
To increase access to local, quality ingredients and Caribbean-inspired meals made from scratch.
Cassandria Campbell: We started with Caribbean food, because it is culturally relevant to the neighborhoods that we are serving and spans across a lot of different cultures. I think so many times we think of tofu or crudité, and a lot of our cultures have a tradition of healthy food. No matter like what part of the diaspora, Latin or African you're from, like there are healthy food traditions, and it's just a matter of returning to those traditions.
So a good example of that is our jerk sauce. We aren't just buying a bottle off of a shelf that has been saturated with different preservatives. We buy the scallions; we buy the habaneros, the onions, locally, put it into a blender, mix it, make the sauce. And then, we're very careful about who we choose to work with in terms of the meat we buy. So hormone free, antibiotic free, to the extent that we can. So we try to meet people where they're at.
Carla: In 2020, after nearly a decade of working out of a food truck and community kitchens, Fresh Food Generation won a community vote to open up a brick and mortar location in Dorchester's Codman Square.
Codman Square, which has been called the “border” between Black and white Dorchester, is formally considered a food desert with McDonald's, a KFC, and many corner stores making up most of its food options.
Carla: For Fresh Food Generation to assume a presence in Codman Square is one important step towards securing access to fresh food for communities that have been deprived of such for so long.
Cassandria Campbell: I think that a lot of people are ready for healthier food options. This is particularly a neighborhood that has resisted fast food options. They actually stopped a Popeye's that was fully built out from being able to open its doors. And to me that was like really scary and really amazing that the community could have that much strength. And so we were entering into a neighborhood that was really saying, “No, we want more healthy food options.”
Cassandria Campbell [Field Tape]: So we have empanadas which originate from Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. We have jerk chicken, which is a traditional Jamaican dish. We have plantains, which is like all of the Caribbean. So it's a mix of different things and we have a lot of fun with it.
Cassandria Campbell: It's really fun to see people's eyes light up when they enter our restaurant and realize that we're here as a business.
I'm hoping that we can make it easier for the next generation to be even more innovative and more bold and sort of change the market around healthy food.
Carla VO: Through Fresh Food Generation, Cassandria has set an example of what bringing better ingredients to a community could look like, creating a model for other businesses to emulate not only in the Boston area but also in other communities.
While Cassandria works to eliminate food deserts on the local level, our next guest has his sights set on reimagining what food access could look like across the country.
As the founder and CEO of Something Better Foods, Chef GW Chew has a mission to make universally accessible healthy foods by manufacturing plant-based food products that are affordable and securable by all people. Chef Chew has been a vegan food inventor and restaurateur for over 15 years and has developed his own line of plant protein used to create familiar cultural foods that improve the health of communities of color.
I sat down with Chef Chew to talk about historical institutions that have created and sustained food deserts in America and how he is scaling his food manufacturing business to make nutritious food a reality for all.
Carla: Chef Chew, thank you so much for being here with me today. It is a pleasure to have you on the show. Let's jump right in. Are you ready?
Chef Chew: I am ready to go. Yes, ma'am.
Carla: Alrighty, sir. So let's talk about the current state of food access in America. How does the current state of food access play in with the existence of food deserts in the country?
Chef Chew: Yeah. I mean, you know, crazy, crazy reality is when you look at, you know, a food desert, there's no, no healthy food options within a close proximity. So it doesn't mean a food desert is without food. That's sometimes a misconception.
Carla: I’m glad you cleared that up.
Chef Chew: Yeah, there is food in food deserts. The access of having those products that are more healthy are not available many times in our communities, you know, the stores aren't there. All you see is the cash and carry, uh the Fried chicken shack, you know, Jim's Fried Fish. You see fast food restaurants on every corner. You see liquor stores almost two times in one block! And so what you find a lot of times in these communities is just very high amounts of fast food and junk food. And then I always like to add the element that many times these places, obviously, socially economically they’re poor. Also a lot of times, the areas aren't the safest. And so a lot of times, these stores they got bars on them, you know, they're kind of like, almost like they're caged up. So I think about that, like when you go get your food, imagine you're going shopping and the place has bars on the windows. And you think about Whole Foods, for example, I mean the presentation is so beautiful. You come in and they see all the fresh vegetables, but you go into these areas, you know, the food is just a lot of times unrefrigerated. Many times it looks like you're kind of shopping in a place where you really don't want to get food from, honestly. The poverty aspect of it creates a situation where the options aren't the greatest. And what that does, it only exacerbates, you know, just the disease that's already within those communities from the eating and lifestyle issues. And so it all kind of flows and kind of goes in together.
Carla: So, you know, if we think about this from a policy standpoint, talk to me about some of the institutions that have created and upheld food deserts across the country.
Chef Chew: Yeah. I mean, phew, I mean that's a deep question. So one of the issues I always look at is, you know, I always talk about the New Deal. After World War II, they had the New Deal and they did something called redlining where they gave, you know, stimulus checks, if you want to call it, to a certain population to help them to get mortgages at a very low rate, which created the suburbs that we see, you know, the white suburbs of America. Um, and then you started seeing that whole this side of the tracks, where you had the black side of town and a white side of town, where when you look at the healthy grocery stores, most of them are actually stabilized and established in those suburban communities. And when you look even deeper, you know, the economic development resources that was in local communities didn't typically go to the black communities. I always say food deserts can be somewhat, I won’t say a hundred percent solved, but if there was more ownership and entrepreneurship within these communities, these communities can provide food for themselves and provide healthier food options. Also, a lot of grocery stores due to the crime, due to the insurance rates, all of that, you know, it wasn't a good business decision. Like why am I going to go into a place where, you know, my insurance company is saying your rate's going to be four times higher in this area and so forth. So it was a lot of stuff that laid the groundwork.
Carla: It's a sort of multiplier effect is your point that if the community has not had the proper development, then crime is a natural output for that. And when once you have crime, then as you said, the risks go up to any businesses that's doing business there. And that becomes a major economic disincentive that all started from the lack of investment in the space in the first place.
Chef Chew: There you go.
Carla: So now let's talk about the journey that led you to founding Something Better Foods. You know prior to founding Something Better Foods, you opened restaurants in Maryland and Arkansas and California, and you know, how did those experiences inform what you set out to accomplish with this company?
Chef Chew: Absolutely. So, you know, my first restaurant in 2008, honestly it didn't do well financially. But it got me into the industry. And so each business that I did kind of going to Something Better Foods in 2017 led me to like really developing the mission, the vision, the business model, the product innovation. So early in those restaurants, I just figured out a process of texturizing pretty much non-GMO organic soybeans. So I take different grains and beans, and I've developed a proprietary technology to create a meat-like texture. And it's all a hundred percent natural. But when I first developed it, it was still in its infancy stage. And so I was introducing this concept in my first restaurant. My second restaurant in Arkansas, this is 2012, people are more adopting now to plant-based. So again, this restaurant I'm developing the model even more. So more of the restaurants became my R&D lab, if I want to call it.
Carla: Ah, okay.
Chef Chew: So that’s kind of what these restaurants became.
Carla: Great playbook point.
Chef Chew: There you go, there you go. So we actually did really well. But I ended up moving. I got another opportunity. And then what happened in 2016, 2017, when I started my last restaurant in Oakland, California, the plant-based space, went crazy. I did a lot of work in Oakland, had a restaurant there for years, but I ended up saying, “I got this product. I've been developing it for over 12 years now. I need to start manufacturing and get this product on the shelf.” And that's always been a dream of mine. I've always kind of been working on that in the backdrop but really never went to that next step. So eventually in 2017, I ended up getting my first manufacturing facility. Um, and we started that process. So Something Better Foods iterated through three restaurants and then Something Better Foods is born as a manufacturing facility. So now it’s all about scaling this meat to, you know, to thousands and thousands of pounds. So it’s a very different business, um, and it took a lot more capital. Restaurant capitalization compared to manufacturing capitalization is very different. It was a lot of education that I had to learn. And I didn't even realize how expensive manufacturing would be when I first got into it. But that's what started that journey. And we've been going since then.
Carla: Well, given that your timing was perfect because now there's great visibility and acknowledgement of plant-based food and the fact that you can do it in a way that tastes good, I would imagine that fundraising wasn't an easy process because you had competitors who had more visibility. And people were saying, “Well, why should I back another plant-based food organization when Beyond burgers or, you know, name another brand is out there?” So, you know, talk to us a little bit about how you were able to make the differentiating argument and be able to do what you did in terms of getting fundraising for Something Better Foods.
Chef Chew: Well, that's a great question. And that’s a very deep question because it’s a lot of factors in fundraising, especially for minority businesses, um that there's a lot to unpack. But I would say, obviously the space got super hot, and there was a lot of venture capital money that came into our space. And what was interesting, what was challenging for me, and I'm not against venture capital financing, but it was difficult for me as I wanted to create a legacy company. I wanted to create a company that would be around for generations. And so I had a different vision and it came really from my upbringing. My father was a sharecropper. And so, you know, ownership was a big thing when he bought his first piece of land. And so, you know, sharecropping, you pretty much lease the land. You never own it. So my father bought his first piece of land when I was born and he always would walk me around the property. And show me that this is our land. You know, he would show me the landmarks. And when I learned about venture capital, which I was new to venture capital, I moved to California, I'm in the San Francisco bay area, so venture capital is really the culture. And as I started understanding it more, this is when I’m first starting in the industry, it was like, you have to give an exit within five, seven years of some crazy 10, 20, 30, 40, 50X, that's the goal. You know, nobody's going into it for a two X return, three X return. And it was kind of hard because I was saying to myself, “I don't want to sell my company. I want to create a company that's going to be for my community. I want to make jobs in my community.” But the money that's available, it's all about, “I'm going to give you this hundreds of millions of dollars, but you got to sell this, you know, in the next five to seven years.” So it took me a real long time to reconcile that.
And it ended up being where I didn't really go after venture capital money. I realized that that type of capital wasn't the capital for me. For some companies, it’s great. But for me, I wanted to create a legacy company and it led me to learn about CDFIs, you know, which is Community Development Finance Institutions, which I think is how we learned about you guys. And that became a very powerful tool to get me my first financing. And I leveraged that type of financing to get my first investors. And I started looking at different types of strategies around financing. And so I started making this bold argument to say, “Look, first of all, Black companies typically we're not resourced from the onset. So we need a little bit more time to actually figure this out because we're not resourced. We don't come from a place of privilege.” I always say, “We gotta build the ladder in order to start climbing the ladder.” So the investors have to understand that reality for most Black businesses. And number two, when you think about IRR, can you give that in a different way? Can a company be more sustainable from the onset in its growth? So we started thinking in our business model, we said, “We want to be cashflow positive as soon as possible.” So in venture capital it’s not about being cashflow positive, it’s about getting growth. So it's about, “There’s a top line, bottom line–” “Who cares about bottom line? I don't care about profit. I care about getting a multiple on growth and that's what's going to give me my, you know, the exit eventually.” So we said, “Nah, we want to learn how to make our meats sustainably. We want to have a good gross margin where our cost of production is very low, but our actual profit margin is very high. So we have more money for marketing and trade spend and all these details.” And that became our philosophy. So I started learning about CDFIs, social impact investors that were more patient. Um, and so we have been successful in raising capital from those types of investors to date. That took a while though. I mean, it took about three years to kind of, “Okay, VCs, ain't going to be the one for me.” And eventually, what's happening in the industry right now is that in the financial world, people are realizing that there's different ways to get that same IRR. We're kind of pioneering and being one of those companies, that's creating alternative financing options on equity to be able to achieve that.
Carla: Well, I have to tell you, Chef you also connecting the dots between what's just broadly going on in the ecosystem. You pointed out earlier that you know, the experience– and everybody knows this– the experience for entrepreneurs of color has been markedly different. And the way they grow, and one of the arguments that I made in one of our earlier podcasts and certainly in one of our white papers, is that by the time you have an opportunity to fund an entrepreneur of color or a woman it's already been de-risked just because of what they've gone to just to get to your desk. Right? So they've already been de-risked. And now what you're saying is that, “You know, my focus on profitability gives you far more sustainable profits than just focusing on growth, cause there's a lot that's going to happen between the top line and the bottom line.” So your playbook point is one that amplifies something I've already said on this podcast is that all capital is not created equal.
Chef Chew: Come on.
Carla: Right? And so you sort of figured out that, “For what I'm trying to build, that's probably not the right capital for me. It might take a little longer for me to get it,” but you, once again, went through an education process with the investment community because CDFIs are a wonderful source of capital and they can turn you on to other angel investors or family wealth. And that is what has happened in order for you to be able to build the company. So that is an excellent, excellent playbook point for the entrepreneurs that'll be listening to how you've done what you've done. So let's talk about the challenges that came with scaling a manufacturing business, and how have you been thinking about it? Cause you clearly have been focused on how do I keep the food affordable while I do this?
Chef Chew: So, yeah, so the scaling became crucial because our scaling actually unlocks the affordability. So what that means is the more efficient we can manufacture our product, the cheaper the price that I could actually offer to my customers, if that makes sense, which allows it to be cheaper on shelf. So what I realized is that as me saying, “I'm going to manufacture,” I have to build the manufacturing and my capacity is going to be limited based on my capex, my capital expenditure. So we learned to scale by slowing down and understanding every aspect of our manufacturing process. We wanted to be experts at every line item. And so when I say, “We don't just make a product, we understand every single step within that process to as granular detail,” that's how we looked at it. And so that allowed us to be able to have an insight into our business on capex, you know, growth, scale, capacity, all of that was being measured. And I have a CFO too, so I got a great team member on my team, you know, that makes a big difference.
Carla: Yes. It enables you to have a much stronger narrative to a would-be lender. Because they knew you understand the business and you understood the game, and that was to pay them back.
Chef Chew: Exactly. Exactly.
Carla: So how does Something Better Foods find and determine which markets or communities need your services or where you might have demand and how do you make the products accessible to them?
Chef Chew: Our first actual big order was from Whole Foods. And one would question and say, “Well, you're not really creating accessibility, you know, from the onset, by going into Whole Foods.” But what we realized is that we're in business, number one. We have to become sustainable and we have to learn how to manufacture. When you talk about going into communities, especially the ones that I would love to go into, the infrastructure is not really there right now. You know, there's not grocery stores in these locations, so what we realized is that we had to start in places that would quickly accept our products. That education of manufacturing, supplying those products, meeting those orders, shipping those products out, all the logistical components, hiring the people would become the training ground that would allow us to do our long-term vision, which is to again, to create sustainability and accessibility. So that was our first foundation. But most importantly, we sold to local restaurants that were actually in food desert communities.
Carla: So, you know, if we think about your relationship with food growing up, soul food has inspired you in terms of your product line?
Chef Chew: Oh, absolutely. Soul food was my upbringing. The reason why I got chicken that look like chicken but it ain't chicken is because I grew up eating a lot of soul food fried chicken. The flavoring, that flavor and the spices and all of that, that drove me into my personal cooking as a chef and how I actually developed my products even to date.
Carla: Well earlier in this episode we heard about Cassandria Campbell's inspiring journey to bring affordable locally-sourced, fresh Caribbean American food to her community in Dorchester. And so what role does a local community connection play in democratizing access to healthy foods?
Chef Chew: Oh, that's everything. Community is everything, because lives are changed by you becoming close. So in order to create change that way, it has to be a personal experience. It has to be a personal approach. Look at food as if you're coming to my own kitchen table. And so that's our approach as a company. We look at people as being family and friends, and I think that drives into community as well. And so that's the approach that you have to have if you're going to bring change in community.
Carla: So what's on the horizon for Something Better Foods?
Chef Chew: Well, Something Better Foods, we are on a mission to democratize access to healthy food options. Uh, right now we're scaling up. We are literally securing our first 30,000 square foot manufacturing facility, right here in Vallejo, California, which is a food desert community location that we're looking at. It's going to give us a $10 million manufacturing capacity. The entire building gets us to about 50 million, but we're going to start out with one phase.
And to determine how we’re going to make change in these food desert communities, we're actually creating a brick and mortar concept. So we're going to literally be starting small brick and mortar locations that is going to be a restaurant slash a grocery concept featuring our proteins. So we're going to sell our proteins to the consumer at about 20 or 30% less than what they'll pay at like a Whole Foods or a grocery store. So not only are we manufacturing the meats, we're selling it to ourselves. So we're going to be doing our first location here in the next probably two to three months. And uh we're going to go for the races and uh we're here to create change. We’re a legacy company. We want to be the next Kellogg. That's what we trying to be. In 30, 40 years from now, if I ain't still here, we want this company to still be alive and we want to bring a knowledge to our community through manufacturing and job creation. All of that is what we're trying to do here in our area, out here in California. Yup.
Carla: Wow. Well, Chef GW Chew. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Chef Chew: Thank you so much for having me. And it was an honor to be a part of this.
Carla: There were so many amazing playbook points in our conversations with Chef Chew and Cassandria. I'm particularly glad that Chef Chew brought up the topic of utilizing Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs, as alternative funding resources. CDFIs play a crucial role in expanding access to quality financial services to underserved individuals and communities. It's fantastic that Chef Chew has tapped into them to help combat food deserts in the U.S.
I want to thank both Cassandria Campbell and Chef GW Chew for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity. What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systemic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.