Sarah Ramirez, a Stanford-educated PhD, left her job as an epidemiologist to return to her farming roots so she could help reverse the growing diabetes and obesity crisis she observed in Tulare County. Tulare, profiled in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, remains largely populated by farm-workers, many still trapped in poverty She wanted to help combat food insecurity, experienced by over 40% of this California county’s residents, which she observed as contributing to these health problems.
In essence, Ramirez and her partners are turning food waste into health improvement gold. With her husband, she started a grass roots organization Be Healthy Tulare in her Pixley, California hometown. Be Healthy Tulare harvests food that would otherwise go to waste in commercial fields because of less-than-perfect appearance or in residential backyards because of too-busy homeowners.
In this country, food pantries do a great job of capturing unused food from grocery stores and restaurants. But according to a recent NPR report showcasing Ramirez’s story, we throw away about 40% of fruits and vegetables grown in America. Food bank employees cannot harvest this food due to liability concerns, and growers would have to incur costs to pick the produce before donating it.
That’s where Be Healthy Tulare comes in. The organization provides the labor to harvest this bounty. It then distributes the fresh produce to those in need, including people who helped in the harvesting. The organization also teaches low-income residents about why and how to cook with fruits and vegetable. And the community it serves has started a community garden. As people eat healthier food, they are getting healthier.
By addressing the root cause of health issues with an inexpensive and labor-intensive solution, Ramirez is demonstrating a number of important points about business models in the 21st century.
First, waste can have value. So do unused assets—as rent-a-room company Airbnb and independent car sharing services demonstrate. Companies that reduce waste, recycle or sell their waste to others drive up the bottom line by lowering cost-of-goods-sold.
Second, the only sustainable business model to solve a problem is one that addresses the root cause of that problem. We can drive down the cost of Medtronic diabetes pumps, NovoNordisk’s insulin and Roche ACCU-CHEKÒ monitors; but we don’t have a chance at pushing back the tsunami of diabetes costs approaching our nation’s economy unless we attack the root cause. Reducing food insecurity while improving diets and nutrition knowledge are root-cause strategies.
Third, using those you serve as part of your value chain is an important strategy for non-profits as the work itself helps raise self-esteem. Getting to be part of a community growing and harvesting food is a very different emotional experience compared to the old experience of getting handouts from a food bank.
Finally, Ramirez saw a problem and used her entrepreneurial instincts to solve it, even though returning to her family farm was not what her farm-worker parents raised her to do. “If I think about the overwhelming nature of the problem, it’s so much easier not to do anything. And there’s a lot of people who say the problem is so big, nothing we can ever do will fix it,” Ramirez says in the NPR report. “Well, if we all took that position, nothing would ever get done.”
Great innovators know you have to look outside the system that created and sustains a problem to solve that problem. If you spent most of 2013 just managing numbers and making internal systems work better, figure out a vitally important external problem you or your organization can solve in 2014 by reaching beyond the boundaries of your current business. That after all is what great businesses do – they solve problems better than the existing alternatives.
I will try to do the same. Happy Holidays to all.