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Christina Grace. Photo taken from Foodprint Group's website with permission from Christina.

CHRISTINA GRACE

December 2017

Chris Grace has been working in food systems for over 15 years, long before the explosion in this type of work started. She and her business partner, Laura Rosenshine, launched Foodprint Group earlier this year. Their company provides consulting services to clients seeking to design or redesign their business operations to have zero waste.

CZ: Can you describe your career path? What were you doing before Foodprint Group? Given that you’ve been in the food systems industry for over 15 years, what fascinated you about it in the beginning? When did you realize that you would be able to make a career in food?

 

CG: I spent my 20s in high tech. I ran marketing for a couple of different companies, one was a Thomson Reuters business and the second was an enterprise software research company. I had studied politics and political economy a lot on Latin America and the Green Revolution. My thesis was on why the Green Revolution was so bad, actually! And I ended up doing what most kids who have student loans end up doing: getting a good job right after college. I woke up at almost 30, and I said to myself “what am I doing? I’m feeling very successful except I’m not doing anything that I thought I would do or would ever want to do. I don’t think I’m doing anything to make the world a better place.” Fortunately, I was living in Massachusetts at a time when there was a local food resurgence with cheese coming from Vermont and other exciting things happening, so I thought I could be part of that movement. I quit my secure, well-paying job with benefits, and I went to culinary school. I picked a program that was started by Julia Child because it was really focused on place and the food in the place. You had an intense French culinary training in the beginning, and then chefs from every culture would come and teach you. They would teach you during the day, and then you would cook what you learned for the public at night. There was a cheese program associated with it as well, we were touring local cheese facilities and learning all sorts of things. I really thought I was going to graduate and start a small food processing business, and make fabulous grass-fed dairy products.

 

Then my husband decided that he had had it with Boston and wanted to go back to the West Coast, so I found myself with a network of food people and a culinary degree and leaving that place to go start off someplace else! We went to Oregon and had to pay our bills, so I continued to develop on the tech side. I showed up at a neighborhood association meeting, while I was doing all of my tech work, and someone said “hey, I want to start a farmers’ market,” and I said “sure, I’ll help.” And I ended up running the market out of my garage for almost five years. We were the first market in Portland to accept electronic food stamps, as I continued my job as a marketer and a market researcher. I was contacted to figure out how we could get more food stamp user shopping at farmers’ markets, so I ended up interviewing 100 people and helping the Health and Human Services Office. That has been the only time that I have published an academic paper in my life, but this was a jumping off point for me.

 

After that, another organization, Ecotrust, reached out telling me about their research on sustainable food systems in California, and they were interviewing over a hundred stakeholders, from the regional head of Whole Foods and the founder of UNFIN, now Newman’s, to local fishermen and farmers to academics; they were trying to figure out how to actually change the landscape of food in California. I took that job and met more people through that opportunity. Suddenly, I was neck deep in food systems work, and I was no  longer available for technology work. I never made a conscious decision that I wanted to really understand the big picture, but the California project exposed me to the entire food system; there wasn’t a piece we did not cover, because we were dealing with hunger, economic development, job creation, and sustainability, and the battle between efficiencies and the environment. We also talked about the fact that we can’t have a sustainable food system when 75% of the produce we eat comes from California. It was so eye-opening for me that I just started pursuing that work. It was so important and stimulating. I had thought I was already involved in that world because I was eating organic, and I had wanted to start a food processing business that was tied to the fabric of the place that I was living in, but I ended up doing something totally different through this bigger picture work.

 

When we found ourselves back in New York, I was continuing to consult, I was working for Community Food Security Coalition and some other organizations, and the state of New York. Someone I had met working for the state of New York told me that they needed someone based in Brooklyn, because they wanted to bring more regional food into the city and get more food into colleges, hospitals, and schools. We also had to work on the urban agriculture side of things; it was growing and there was a lot of demand for it, and the community gardens were complaining that they were not getting support from the state, even though it had promised to support them. I took this job that was so multi-faceted, where I was leading urban agriculture initiatives around the state. I was also working in farm to institution and distribution issues, and I was involved in USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) grant-funded projects. One of the projects was around grains and getting more local grains into NYC bakeries, so really a whole mix of things.

 

When I left the state, I started my consulting practice, and my goal was to narrow the field. When I was working for the state, I felt like a ping-pong ball; I had my hand on so many things! One of the areas that had grown a lot was food waste, and I happened to know a lot about composting. A few years ago, when Hudson Yards was under development, in the planning and starting to build phase, I got connected to related companies because their head of sustainability had been speaking to waste people, and they just felt nobody knew anything about food waste. A friend of mine in the energy field told Hudson Yards to meet with me, so I met with them, and I was very honest about my experience. This was where my technology background and my food background came together. We were evaluating a whole host of systems for processing food waste on site. I knew a lot about technology evaluation and food waste and sustainability and carbon. I also knew enough to know when something that sounded good was actually bad. So I went through that process with them and they connected me to another developer, Vornado, who was looking at doing some work. Then someone from Google showed up at an event that I was speaking at, and they asked me to help them with the system evaluation for on-site processing of food waste at their Port Authority location. A majority of my work suddenly was around food waste, 75% of it!

 

I had to make a decision on which way I was going to go, because I was realizing that I couldn’t do it all well. I couldn’t be working with American Farmland Trust on farm to institution issues, and be sitting in Cypress Hills with local CDCs to help them to figure out good food jobs, and then doing design work and planning. I wasn’t going to become great at any of it, I was just going to be getting by all of it. I really was enjoying the work of food waste, and it’s a massive problem. I can’t tell you that it’s a bigger problem than any other problem in the food system that I had been working on, but I had to make a choice. The decision was that it’s all important, but I settled on removing waste from the food sector, and I wanted to go a little bigger. A colleague of mine was thinking the same thing, so we partnered and went from being consultants to launching a company this year! We are 24/7 zero waste in food!

 

When I talk to people who are interested in the field, I want to stress that all I’ve done in my entire career is to show up and do a good job. I have learned a lot on the ground, in the middle of solving a problem. I haven’t known everything at the start of any problem I have ever had. For people who care about addressing problems in the food system, there’s a boatload of work to be done, and a big part of it is just showing up.

 

So here I am now, still working with Google and others, and we really want to go national with the zero waste program for food companies. We’ve launched our pilot model, where we look at the materials and food that come into an operation, how it’s handled internally, and to where it goes on the other side. How we can design the important infrastructure into our clients’ businesses so that composting, separation of recycling and waste are really easy to do, so they can reduce waste, so they can use materials that don’t have to be thrown away or recycled or composted; some of it is just changing habits. We’ve piloted at Eataly in Boston and their two NYC sites and LA, and we’re going to their Chicago location, and it’ll be our first national rollout of this program, which is super exciting. One of the things that also compelled me about working in food waste issues is that it’s been such a male-dominated field, and it’s super exciting to be one of the many women that are starting businesses that are shifting the landscape, and I think it will change the way that waste is managed.

 

CZ: Let’s talk a little more about starting Foodprint Group. When you and Laura decided to take the leap into creating your own business, did you face any challenges? Was there anything you wish you had known before? I guess with your background you had a pretty good understanding of what you guys had to do to get started, but looking back, would you have done anything differently?

 

CG: I still feel like we’re in the throws of it. We’re still so new to this that I don’t think I have one specific thing to say that I would change about our business. But I can tell you why we launched the business. We were approached by an equity investor who liked what we had been doing. They told me “we’d like to support you in this, and we think you should hire Laura, we like what she’s doing too.” It was interesting because they were coming at the zero waste space from the end of the line in terms of recycling. This company was investing in a lot of materials recycling facilities, and I think they were looking at us as a group that could really make diversion better and also support composting and infrastructure. But our mission is so much about reduction. We don’t want to send more materials to recycling facilities; we want people to use less plastic, we want less disposable dishware. We’re still in conversations, but it was a flag for both of us saying maybe we don’t need to take equity investment at the start, and we need our model to be really, really strong so that when an investor does invest in us, they can’t pull us in a different direction.

 

We also incorporated as a benefit corporation (B Corp), because it means that we state that we are going to meet certain goals to make the world a better place. That’s part of our bylaws, and no matter who invests in us, we have to stick to what we committed to, which is really great! These are the kinds of things that make us feel really strong about what we’re doing and being ok with taking that kind of outside investment later on.

 

Part of becoming an entrepreneur is trying to really understand the pressures of the world. There is a lot of pressure in our world to grow fast, especially in the world of startups. We’re trying to grow at a pace that we can handle, so we didn’t pitch the Hilton first. We pitched Eataly because they have five sites, not thousands of them. We knew that we could pilot from a place where we could learn a lot. We picked one of the most complicated food business out there. We wanted to pick a place that has retail, food production, multiple restaurants at each venue, which makes it a really complicated site in terms of food waste management. We figured that if we can be successful there, then we can be successful anywhere else. We are learning in a very methodical way; it’s all very intentional. The types of companies that we are pitching to are certain types of businesses. Another thing is that in the investment world, in general, they’ll look at a business that is really focused on sustainability and say “I understand why people who think like you will buy your service, but tell me why everyone is going to buy your service.” I’ve gotten very comfortable saying, “I don’t have to tell you why everyone is going to buy my service, because there are so many companies out there that are doing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting.” There are so many companies that are focused on sustainability in so many other ways, but waste is the last frontier. We can sell our services to a lot of companies that share our values for long enough, before we have to convince anybody that eliminating waste is important.

 

Startups are crazy, no matter what; we’re always crazy busy, because there is always a period when you can’t afford to hire more people, but you have more work than you can handle. But I think that’s normal. From a food systems perspective, we don’t have to be everything and there are a lot of great businesses out there that we can partner with. It’s been an opportunity for us to talk to a lot of food startups that are doing fun things with food waste in particular. You have Toast Ale making beer out of bread and RISE making flour out of grains that were used to make beer, and Loliware making edible cups and straws. There’s a lot of cool stuff that’s going on, and we’re a part of a network of businesses that have the same goals in terms of dealing with carbon and all the other impacts of the food system that’s broken. And we’re learning that our theory from the start of focusing more upstream instead of downstream was right! At least 75% of the impact of materials happens upstream, way before materials get to your door. In general, we focus so much of our energy on improving recycling, but we’re never going to make up for the damage done by processing a piece of plastic in the first place or the damage done by grilling something that never gets eaten. People are starting to get that, though, and that’s exciting for us.

 

CZ: I know that you shared that one of the most valuable lessons is to just show up and to learn on the ground. What other advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own project but doesn’t know how or where to start?

 

CG: I think the first question is does somebody need to get paid? My advice is that you need to be smart about what you throw yourself into in terms of making sure that you can still feed yourself. You can be doing a lot of good work, but grow resentful if you can’t make a living from it. There are a lot of organizations out there and a lot of ways to be paid to work in this space. You may start doing something that isn’t exactly what you thought you would be doing, but if you are in the network, you’ll have lots of opportunities to meet people and learn about organizations. You can identify organizations that are hiring at all kinds of networking events, and groups like Food+Tech Connect are announcing great jobs all the time. Don’t commit full-time to something that won’t pay you a livable wage, because you have to eat, but if you’re young and don’t have kids and have a lot of time, volunteer! I ran that farmers’ market as a volunteer; it was a labor of love. I never expected it to lead to work, but it changed my whole life. I credit working with 35 farmers every week and all the work and research projects that fell out of that to my career today. I was just doing it because I thought it would be great for the community and because it was economic opportunity for farmers; I wasn’t doing it at all for my own career.

 

You look around the city, and there are so many groups that are doing incredible things, whether it’s urban agriculture, or community food projects, or nonprofit CBOs that have lots of projects on the ground that are fascinating, like Cypress Hills Local Development or Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corp. They have food pantries, job training, attached community gardens, and all kinds of things. One of the great things about NYC is that you can really get your head around a hyperlocal food system in neighborhoods where they are providing all of these different resources to residents through community developments. And we have a bunch of them!

 

I would recommend to be in a neighborhood where you see food production as a tool to address food access issues, but also to get people to learn where food comes from and to create a space for people to build skills and knowledge around cooking and food growing. Once you have people showing up somewhere, you can provide immigration support, enroll people in food stamps, etc. There are a million things going on in the food system now, so anything that you are interested in, there are a lot of places where you can show up and see what cool job training programs and other things are going on. The big question is what do you want to do? There is definitely a way for you to access that here, and if you can’t get a job in it right away, you can still be a part of it and build a network until someone sees what you can do and they hire you.

 

CZ: What do you hope to achieve and transmit through Foodprint Group? What role do you think zero waste guidelines and food waste analyses play in changing our environmental, economic, and political landscapes?

 

CG: One of the things I’m excited about the design guidelines is in terms of the impact for manufacturers and policy people. For years, the excuse was that people don’t care, and it was all pushed back on the consumers. Manufacturers don’t change the plastic that they’re packaging in, they just blame consumers for not recycling better. From a design perspective, when things are functional, it’s easy for you to do them, which is why I am super excited to send the message that it isn’t that people don’t care, and it shouldn’t be people’s responsibility to fix the problems that were generated upstream. We are creating interim solutions around designing for recycling, but hopefully we’re sending a message about long-term solutions for not creating the problem in the first place, to be able to completely eliminate plastic from the landscape. We have so many smart people, we invested billions of dollars in things like Silicon Valley, we have the brainpower to solve these things, the manufacturers have the money to solve these things. We need more pressure and they need to be shown up, in terms of us being able to say “See? these simple changes in design made all the difference in the world!” Just imagine if Unilever changed the packaging in all their cereal boxes, if everything wasn’t packaged in plastic bags  inside of card box anymore, wouldn’t that be great?! I think there’s a huge opportunity for that.

 

I think it’s pervasive in our society: pushing so much on to the individual in every way. Corporations get treated like individuals, and they have so little responsibility as corporations considering the impact that they have. I’m really excited to build this network of folks that are doing the kind of work that we’re doing. My goal is to get to the critical mass of customers that we could have high level of influence on producers of products; that’s something that is super exciting for me. I think from a food perspective, we’re going to reduce our customers’ food waste; that’s just going to happen, because as long as we’re watching it, we can fix it. I think all other materials are going to take more time. People are going to get their wine in glass bottles for a long time, but we need to figure out better solutions. We can live with glass for longer, but it’s plastic that is dangerous. I think that is where we all need to be focused.

 

As long as we’re making improvements and once you’re in the space, you can start identifying people that you can collaborate with to move the needle in a direction. Policy, for example, is super important; it’s a big deal. We can do a lot at the state level and the city level to put pressure on businesses, with the organic waste ban, if it wasn’t for that, there would still be so many people not thinking about dealing with their food waste right now. So I think that you pick your thing, pay attention as to where it fits within the bigger picture, build a network so that you’re always conscious that you’re a part of a bigger movement, and whenever you can engage on the policy front, do it!

 

CZ: Walk me through a day in the life of Christina: What does it look like? What do you like about it? What challenges you most about it?

 

CG: I am the CEO, so I am responsible for all the admin craziness. I am also the primary salesperson. For example, yesterday I spoke at the Women in Green meeting, then ran down to the World Trade Center to the Eataly site to see how the setup was going for the new zero waste program, so I made sure that all bins were in place, everyone received training, and signs were on the walls. Then I ran back to get a proposal out and to have a call with a contractor. Then I was on a call with our tech developer, because we are developing a new tool for waste tracking that’s a tablet tool, but we need to make some final changes so we can pilot it next week.

 

My typical day is all over the place; it’s running a business, sometimes I’m on the ground all day at a client site. Most of the time right now, though, I’m trying to get all the pieces of our business in place and the tools that we need to be able to scale. We need to do carbon footprint analyses, for example, so the tool we’re creating has to feed into something else that converts the data to carbon saved. There is a lot of that analytical stuff going on right now. I also have to make sure everyone gets their benefits. It’s a lot of the startup CEO stuff; I also met with a potential funder yesterday who was co-located in the same building as Eataly, which was pretty comical.

 

CZ: What do you think is the biggest challenge or the biggest challenges that we face as human beings? And what role do you think food can play in solving these challenges?

 

CG: I feel like the biggest challenges we are facing right now, I don’t even understand. We have too many people going hungry, while having an obesity crisis in multiple countries, including our own. We have enough food to feed the world, we are just wasting it and it’s concentrated in certain spaces. Our environment is deteriorating. They did a study on salt and found that any salt that is being harvested from the ocean has plastic in it. And we know there is plastic in most wild-caught fish, so I think our challenges are that environmental issues are human health issues. Not only are we worried about wildlife, but we are worried about sustaining ourselves, because nothing is clean anymore.

 

That frightens me a lot, but I have thought a lot less about food issues, since Donald Trump was elected. I don’t even know where to begin in terms of the biggest threats. I feel like while I’m working on zero waste, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I can actually help to change the state of affairs right now. Long before we’re all completely poisoned by plastic and climate change causes all these weather disasters, I am far more scared of gun violence and a potential war with North Korea. There is so much to be worried about right now. These are some really frightening times, we need to do something!

 

CZ: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

 

CG: I would eliminate guns. And in our world of food systems, I would certainly be working to end hunger. So I would be thinking of the distribution of the available food. In my world, food is not a commodity, it’s a right. It’s like air and water, we can’t live without. Just having something that is not nutritious, but is filling bellies is not enough. What everybody deserves to eat needs to provide them the nutrition they need. If I could change one thing, I would say that governments need to have policies that protect spaces for growing food for the people that they serve, and that everybody gets nutritious, whole foods.