In a recent Heroic Endeavors feature, we interviewed Sharon Feuer Gruber and Wendy Stuart of the Wide Net project. The conversation ranged from marketing invasive fish species to nutrition to the current state of our food system.
We liked Sharon and Wendy so much that we decided to run the rest of the interview we had with them! Today we talk about their backgrounds at the Culinary Institute of America (Wendy), Bread for the City (Sharon) and how, when they met, they knew they needed to work together. You can read the rest of Part 2 in this PDF.
Did you know each other before you went into business together? How did you meet?
Sharon: I was consulting for Bread for the City, which is DC's largest food pantry and has many agricultural projects and free medical clinics and legal clinics – it’s a multiservice agency. I was their nutrition initiative advisor and created their whole nutrition program – education and sourcing, etc. And Wendy bopped in one day.
Did Bread for the City initiate the DC Food Day events?
Wendy: The first year they had one of the larger events in DC, and I was consulting with the Food Day (http://www.foodday.org/) campaign to convey the message of what Food Day is. I think the issues of food access and food security in DC are an obvious topic for a central campaign. So, I walked into Bread and we put that together.
Sharon had done a number of classes in nutritional health for the local community…
Sharon: …for a Bread for the City client…
Wendy: …and I was her chef.
How long ago was that?
Wendy: Seems like 10 years.
Sharon: Gee thanks! Almost 3 years ago.
From working together for Bread for the City you started the consulting company?
Sharon: Right. While at Bread for the City I made that transfer from consulting as me to consulting as Food Works Group, and then ultimately moved on because it was just too many hours to be able to have a diverse consulting practice if they were still going to be my client.
The lessons I learned there were invaluable in terms of community food access, engaging community and urban agriculture. We started a multi-acre orchard when I was there, just outside the city, in an urban environment. The type of innovation that the organization allowed me to initiate was really outstanding, for any organization, but in particular for a small nonprofit.
I just did a blog post a couple of days ago that actually shows the connection of that work with what we're doing now. And it links to the orchard a little bit.
Wendy: It seems to me your experience being Farmer Sharon did well by us for moving into the world of protein, going from fresh produce, bringing a lot of the same concepts.
Sharon: We launched the Wide Net project; we call ourselves co-founders.
You definitely have a wide range of experience. Nutrition seems to be the through-line.
Sharon: Right, and that was something I wouldn't have come to on my own. I was injured and had that as an excuse to really rethink what I wanted to do. I went to a vocational counselor who helped me come up with that idea. It was not natural.
I took some tests about what career I should move into. I liked what I was doing but I knew it wasn't meant to be full-time. And it came back that I should be a translator. And I was like, well, I do love traveling and I do love language but I don't speak another language fluently. So I decided I needed a little help reimagining what I could do with myself, and am grateful for the path that has enabled me to take.
When I started with Bread for the City my job was to make the food pantry healthier and to do some nutrition education. But you couldn't just say, “No, we're not going to serve high-sodium items,” and “No, we're not going to carry Jell-O anymore.” It needed to be that we weren't taking away from those who were coming for food. We needed instead to be offering healthier, appealing options. So I quickly had to step into this role of sourcing healthier food that was in the organization's budget.
More than six years ago I started a whole farm outreach project. It was naïve. I just started calling farmers and saying, “Hi, this is me and this is the organization. What do you do with your extra food? Do you have anything extra? What do you do with things that don't look good and groceries that you don't want to order? Or don't want to purchase etc.?” And then developed these relationships and a whole network of farmers who were willing to either donate food directly that they were already picking and sorting and packaging or selling as their seconds, so…the curvy cucumbers of the world. Or we were sending out teams of volunteers to their land with a staff member. And then training for volunteers, how to glean produce and respect the farmer's land, because for a farmer, sending out a group of people onto their land who are not farmers would be like me giving anyone in this restaurant my laptop. It's very scary. It's their livelihood.
That program is still going on at the organization in different ways. It's developed over time and we now partner with many of the Bread for the City partners.
Then ultimately I felt like there were two holy grails that we weren't hitting. One was, it was really hard to get enough fruit, and the other was proteins. Protein is what ultimately led to the Wide Net project, or is a part of what led to the Wide Net project. And the fruits led to City Orchard, which is now in its second year.
[You can read more about the orchard here.]
That is the first orchard — the first agricultural project of its size — that's run by a food pantry and is not in the country. That was my baby. It's up to almost four acres now. We've been able to use more land. I'm not involved in it right now because professionally my time is taken elsewhere. But I do look forward to participating in some harvest this year. Recently they were harvesting greens, all this cover crop. It's great. It's all organic.
[Read the rest of Part 2 in this PDF.]