There is no doubt that we are living in one of the most revolutionary times in history with significant changes in economies, demographics, democracies, energy, communication, creativity, connectivity, technology, and food supply. And while I know John Foraker, the CEO of Annie’s Homegrown Foods, has opinions about all of these subjects, we focused our conversation around food. The backdrop to this conversation is that we’ve got a domestic crisis with obesity–consumers are becoming more educated and aware of what is going into their food, society is becoming more creative and social in how it shares and consumes food, and we’re more engaged with those who lack sufficient food in third-world countries compared to the extreme indulgences of how food is consumed domestically. In our rapidly changing and complex world, one trend we’re seeing is a return to simple, homegrown, fresh food and it’s with this in mind that I wanted to find out what John has to say about the future of food.
Where do you think we are heading with food and how we eat in this country?
We are at the beginning of a very exciting time in food history. Consumers in every kind of community are starting to pay more attention to what’s on their plate, and asking questions about how their food is made. Every day mainstream media stories are talking about food. I’m heartened by the rise in popularity of the Food Network, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and the fact that “rock star” chefs are inspiring kids to cook at home. At Annie’s, we’ve watched the number of requests for our Grants of Gardens program increase by 300% over the past four years, as more and more schools look at gardens as a way to teach kids about science, health and wellness. Though organic foods are still a small part of overall food consumption, the percentage is growing, and I think we will see momentum around healthier eating continue to grow.
What’s your biggest frustration about the way Americans eat today?
I think there are big issues with education, policy, and funding. However, what’s really frustrating is that convenience is so often used as an excuse for poor eating decisions. As a busy parent and CEO, I completely understand time crunches and hectic schedules. But, I don’t think being busy is an excuse to eat poorly. Annie’s specifically tries to provide solutions for busy times, to be an option for parents when there’s no time to cook from scratch or pack a full lunchbox of homemade snacks.
If you were the CEO of Eradicate Obesity what steps would you take?
Obesity is a symptom of much larger problems. We need to really step back and teach people how to nourish themselves and their families. Eating is about so much more than feeling full. Battling obesity requires everything from grassroots community education, to policy changes that put healthy food in schools, to support for organic growers to put limits on GMOS, to bringing grocery stores back to urban centers–we need an entire system change. Our Root 4 Kids program is one small way in which Annie’s is educating our fans on how to get kids excited about real food, and giving parents and teachers tools to help teach their families about making good food decisions.
Do you think we are making any progress with obesity?
We’re making progress towards raising understanding of the interconnectedness of food and overall health, but there’s still much work to be done.
What do you think is going to change about what and how we eat five years from now?
Overall we’ll be eating more healthy foods in five years. The consumers who are reading labels now are going to demand that food companies clean-up their ingredient statements–we’ll have fewer artificial colors, flavors, and less high fructose corn syrup. I think you’ll see more companies pursuing Non-GMO certification. And, the trend of home gardening or shopping at farmer’s markets for fresh, seasonal vegetables will continue to grow.
Where does your love of food come from?
I grew up in a farm community, and studied Agricultural Economics at UC Davis, so understanding where food comes from has always been an interest. However, it wasn’t until I became a father that I really started thinking about how critical food is to our overall health, and the importance of making good food choices. My wife was the first organic adopter in our household, something she did to protect our kids from synthetic growth hormones, pesticides, and artificial ingredients and colors. I’ve taken that inspiration and it’s brought incredible personal meaning and urgency to my work at Annie’s. We try to instill a real love and appreciation for healthy eating in all four of our children.
What’s your biggest joy as the CEO of a rapidly growing natural food company?
One of the biggest joys of being at Annie’s is knowing that we’re nourishing families for the long-term, not only with our actual products, but also because of the care we put into sourcing our ingredients.
What’s your biggest frustration?
Our biggest opportunity is education–helping to teach current and potential Annie’s fans why they should be thinking about what’s in their box of mac and cheese or box of fruit snacks. The natural and organic industry has a responsibility to translate everything that we know and understand about the benefits of choosing healthier foods for our consumers.
Where will Annie’s be in five years?
At Annie’s, we push ourselves to continually improve our company and our offerings. In five years, we will offer even more options to nourish families throughout the entire day. We’ll have a much bigger impact as we touch millions more families every week, and serve as a positive example to others in the way we do business. We will have supported 60 more leaders through our Annie’s scholarship program, and grown Root 4 Kids to impact millions of children across the country.
What does ‘less is more’ mean to you in the context of how we eat today?
Annie’s has always been about straight from nature ingredients, as minimally processed as possible. That’s the essence of “less is more.” It’s best to choose real, simple foods–not ingredients that originated in a chemistry lab.
What advice do you have for anyone starting a new food company in the natural products space today?
A major factor of Annie’s success is that we have an authentic story, and have always tried to run the business by doing the right thing. We take pride in doing the right thing even when no one is looking–it’s embedded in our company DNA. Even before it was trendy to talk about community giving programs or sustainability, Annie’s was trying to be more than just a food manufacturer. My advice to new companies is to clearly define their values, and never compromise for the sake of additional profit. Consumers seek long-term relationships from brands they can trust. Trust is our most important asset, we cherish it and everything we do must build on that.