Sharon Feuer Gruber and Wendy Stuart know what it takes to change our food system and they’re on the hunt for projects to make that happen. After working on projects together at Bread for the City in Washington, DC, they quickly realized that they have complementary strengths that would lend themselves to a joint effort.
The pair founded the Wide Net project, a nonprofit organization that connects two critical issues, hunger relief and the environment, by helping to grow a fishery for Chesapeake Bay wild, blue catfish — a non-native, invasive species in tributary rivers of the Chesapeake that is a top predator and is outcompeting native species.
Wide Net drums up demand for, then sells blue catfish to universities, hospitals, grocers, restaurants and other customers. One of the organization’s goals is to reduce the population of the invasive species. Fewer blue catfish means the Bay’s native animals and plants can recover from the destruction caused by the fish, helping to restore a more balanced ecosystem.
Another goal is to help alleviate hunger in underserved communities. Wide Net provides the catfish at below market cost to hunger relief organizations in the communities where Wide Net sells the fish. Their customers help identify which hunger relief organizations to work with.
Sharon and Wendy’s work doesn’t stop with the fish, though. They also have a for-profit consulting business, Food Works Group, that focuses on the development, business planning, implementation and oversight of food-related projects that deal with topics like establishment of small culinary businesses with a local food focus in underserved neighborhoods.
Both women strive to create a smarter food system, a goal that is born out of backgrounds that provided each of them with opportunities to witness first-hand the impacts of our currently broken food system.
We spoke with Sharon and Wendy a while back about their work and had a great, free-wheeling conversation about their projects, the problems we face as a society around food, water and energy and how to solve them.
Below, a taste of our conversation, which you can read more of here.
What’s your favorite part of the Wide Net project?
Sharon: One of my favorite parts of the Wide Net project is that watermen — which is generally what they are called, I haven't ever heard anyone say waterwoman…
Wendy: …waterwomen call themselves watermen…
Sharon: …everyone calls them watermen.
It's a hard life, it's a very hard life. And they try to make a living catching fish that have quotas. The beauty of working with a species that's overpopulated is there is no quota. It's taken over the tributaries to such an extent that it's available year-round.
Wendy: In any quantity.
Sharon: And it provides economic stimulus to them [the watermen] directly and to the region.
Wide Net is an interesting model because it's both for-profit and nonprofit. Part of it goes toward making the fish more affordable. It seems to be an effective model.
Wendy: And we are pretty proud of that piece. People are noticing that we have a nonprofit.
That we certainly want grants to help with our educational mission and such, but it's not going to fall apart – it can financially sustain itself. We can sell the fish and we can subsidize the fish. So it can exist on its own.
Sharon: It wouldn't crumble as long as we're selling fish. But we need the grants to grow.
The other piece of the mission is the conservation education. We were deciding, "Do we want this to be a for-profit or a nonprofit?" Okay, this should be a financially-viable nonprofit because that margin is going to the community and then also toward education (as opposed to the corporate giving programs).
Wendy: I would like to see more projects that are not nonprofits, as important as nonprofits are.
Dealing in food and related issues, it should be financially sustainable — well it should be for a nonprofit or a for-profit. I think people are entitled to make money at their passions, and if you're growing food or working with food or producing food — I'd like to see more projects exist and be sustainable in the for-profit world.
What projects do you work on through Food Works Group?
Wendy: A couple of our local projects deal with providing local sourcing and kitchen space, because one of the best ways for underserved communities to make some extra money, with low barriers to entry for business, is a small culinary business. That's widely accepted, but you need legal space - legal space is a commercial kitchen - so building these and then bringing in culinary entrepreneurs who know how to cook, and cook fabulous foods, but don't have a legal space to make it, don't know how to market it or brand it or get it on the shelves. It seems like such a simple concept but it is so crucial in helping people produce. It's a great business. It's something you could just do, like if you have that talent then it's something you can run with.
The other piece is sourcing. When you are dealing with the commercial kitchens or cafés, you want the farmers to get their food to them to be used at the best price — at the best price for the farmer and a price that works for the producer.
Sharon: …and also to provide the best, high-quality ingredients for the consumer, and for the chef to enjoy cooking that.
Do you think people go for cheap, processed food because it's cheap? If it cost more, would they cook more?
Sharon: If you look at the data from Share Our Strength which released a big study last year about American cooking, low-income populations cook way more than people attribute. And, yes, there needs to be an education piece, but lots of people, immigrants for instance, come from a tradition of cooking. So I think a piece of it is, yes, if junk food were more expensive then poor people wouldn’t buy it, but I don't think that's entirely the case. I think the tradition piece is relevant for that.
When processed food was first becoming hip, the early adopters back in the 50s…it was the housewives. In the 1950s we were interested in trying new science, essentially, and there was this sense that — they had to cook some of the cake and add some of the ingredients of the cake, and so they added oil and an egg — that was considered enough. It wasn't everything in the box. But they were interested in progress.
So “processed foods” on some level was considered progressive and better. And then it turned out to also be really cheap, but I think initially it was coming from a different place.