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What the Annie's Acquisition Means to Shareholders and Spoonholders
Thursday, September 11, 2014

The announcement that General Mills would acquire Annie's Homegrown sent the food world spinning.

There was an allergic reaction, and within hours of sharing the news, Annie's Facebook page had over 9,000 comments. 

To consumers, it was an emotional grenade.

As I dug into the announcement, the first email that I sent was to Annie herself, the mother who started the company 25 years ago. She quickly replied.

When Annie started the company, genetically engineered ingredients were not even in our food supply. She simply formulated a mac and cheese product for her kids that wasn't loaded with junk.

Could she have anticipated this?  Not at all.

John Foraker, Annie's CEO, the dad of four responsible for overseeing the growth of the company and for taking it public in 2012 with one of my all time favorite ticker symbols, BNNY, also responded:


 

And in one swift motion, the landscape of food had changed. 

No one could have anticipated food ingredients designed by chemical companies that have been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticides. Nor could the industry have anticipated this food awakening, driven by the escalating rates of diseases and conditions like cancer, autism and food allergies and other conditions impacting the health of the people that we love.

Food allergies in our children are forcing us to read labels, as quickly as cancer diagnoses are forcing the same.  No one would choose to be standing in the aisles of the grocery store, holding the hand of a child with food allergies or autism or managing a parent's cancer diagnosis, yet that is where so many of us find ourselves today. We are being forced to read labels to protect the health of our loved ones, whether we want to read them or not.  And sales of organic foods are soaring, as consumers try to eat a little bit better, a little bit cleaner and opt out of artificial ingredients.  The U.S. branded organic and natural foods industry's sales have been growing at a 12 percent compound rate over the last 10 years.

And while big food companies like General Mills might have fought this for some time, they also aren't stupid, and their job is to drive shareholder return.  Sales of processed foods and conventional products that are pumped full of artificial growth hormones, artificial dyes and other artificial ingredients like GMOs are lackluster at best.  The industry watches companies like Kellogg entrench and refuse to address this change in demand.  What happens?  Sales slump, and Kellogg is laying off 7% of their workforce.

It's a slow death by artificial ingredients. 

One look at the share price of Kroger or Chipotle tells the story of what happens to a company that expands into this 'free from' category: shareholders are rewarded. 

Why wouldn’t a company want to enter this space in a meaningful way?

Change is hypocritical.

General Mills has been part of the anti-labeling brigade.  Led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, they have been a core member of the team of companies that have spent millions to keep consumers in the dark.  When I spoke with their company recently, they were fascinated by what I had to say, then stopped and said, “But there is something on your bio that is a problem.”  “What is it?” I asked.  “It’s your affiliation with “Just Label It” campaign.

That is their problem, as taking the position that a consumer does not have the right to know how her food is made, despite the fact that we are told if milk is pasteurized or if orange juice comes from concentrate, is undemocratic.  It’s a freedom enjoyed by 60% of the world’s population. 

Annie's has been an outspoken advocate for GMO labeling.

Consumers got on it, and General Mills was quick to reply with their position.  They told consumers that we already have a way of knowing if GMOs are not in our products, and it's called "USDA Organic."  That's fine for consumers who can afford it, but what about everyone?  For those that want to know if GMOs are used, there is no mandatory labeling system in place.  Why label one and not the other?  The very costs that they are arguing against, they are happily paying when they label their organic products. 

So the outrage over this new marriage stems from the the fact that General Mills has fought to keep consumers from knowing what is in their products, while Annie's has led with transparency.

The reaction that consumers are having to the announcement is the fear that General Mills wrangles Annie’s into submission.  And while General Mills can operate Annie's with an expansive economy of scale and get their price to manufacture down, it's not all altruistic.  General Mills also knows that people are willing to pay more for Annie's products.  It's a way to diversify their portfolio, get better, higher margin products to market and increase Annie's availability in the marketplace.  It's good for business.  They also see the writing on the wall, and it doesn't contain the letters "G-M-O."

The fear is that Annie’s will fold, but this is where leadership and personal stories step in.  Annie’s CEO, a dad of four who comes from a farming family, holds a degree is in agricultural economics and has a background in banking, will be a pivotal leader in the organization.  He knows the supply chain and knows the demands of the financial world.   He also knows what it is like to see someone that you love face serious health challenges.  He knows that families around the country are experiencing these challenges every day. 

And like the CEO of Stonyfield did when he expanded the brand and the reach of the yogurt company through its Danone partnership, Annie’s CEO found a partner to expand and capture economies of scale that the company couldn’t on its own.  Stonyfield's founder never backed down.

General Mills buying into the organic movement through the purchase of Annie's provides distribution and access to capital.

Is consolidation the best answer?  "These big food companies aren't going to let anything else happen," said one of the portfolio managers that I used to work with when I spoke with him today. 

And right now, our food system is currently structured in a way that the costs of production for organic ingredients are disproportionately higher.   It is structured this way at the federal level.  It is not a level playing field for the organic industry. And when a company goes public, the way that Annie's did in 2012, it is opening itself for an acquisition. 

Does it mean that it will always be this way?  That policy will always be this way? Not at all.  Policy follows the money, and right now, the organic industry is growing while conventional is stagnant.  The landscape of the food industry is changing at every level.  Amazon is entering the retail space, online distribution companies are entering, too.  Farmers market and community supported agriculture are taking off.  Why?  Because the grocery retail structure makes it hard for smaller brands to compete.  They either have to sell out or buy in.  It requires capital.

To hit the scale and scope of distribution that makes a product accessible and affordable to all Americans, companies have repeatedly sold themselves to a larger company: Stonyfield to Danone, White Wave to Dean Foods, Happy Family again to Danone.  The list goes on. 

Have these brands sold out?  Or have the bigger brands bought into the organic movement?  Stonyfield didn't sell out.  Happy Family didn't either.  Both companies were founded by people who have personally known how autism or cancer can impact a family.

Do I wish there were other ways for these companies to scale?  And that the food industry had a level playing field for organic companies?  Absolutely.  There is nothing that I would rather have seen then Annie's, White Wave, Hain Celestial and other organic brands become the iconic brands of the 21st century.  Our generation's iterations of Kraft, General Mills and Pepsi.  

Perhaps this is the first iteration towards that.    But right now the cost structure is prohibitive.  We haven’t financed a healthy food system at the federal level.  If farmers want to grow organic crops, they lose the crop insurance protection programs, they lose subsidies and they lose marketing support.  Is that financially viable?

The food movement is not going away.  Demand for food that is 'free from' artificial ingredients like food dyes, GMOs, high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients is not a fad, because cancer, autism and food allergies are not fads.  We are seeing a fundamental shift in the way that Americans buy food, because we are sick. 

General Mills obviously recognizes that.  They are hedging with this acquisition, balancing their portfolio. The key is to not compromise the integrity of the Annie's brand in the process.  Creative destruction is an economic term trumpeted by a man named Joseph Schumpeter.  And change, in these early stages, often looks like hypocrisy.  It often looks destructive.  The question becomes: what is the long term objective here?  Is it really to destroy a brand?  No, it’s to capture its market share, its margins and expand into the category.

So how could this play out? 

A look back at other historic acquisitions in the food industry gives us a feel for how this could play out, because if the share prices of White Wave and other organic companies are any indication today, this consolidation stage will continue.

In 1985, Philip Morris Cos. became a holding company and the parent of Philip Morris Inc. and bought General Foods. The acquisition of Kraft Foods came in 1988. In 2001, Kraft Foods spun out of Phillip Morris and launched an IPO for 11.1% of the company that raked in $8.7 billion, making it the 2nd largest IPO in American history at the time

If General Mills decides to grow the Annie’s brand and then spin it out again in a few years time, like Philip Morris did with Kraft or like Dean Foods did with White Wave, they would drive enormous shareholder value if they stay true to the brand. 

If they don't, there are plenty of examples of fallout in the food industry.  From Kellogg’s, to the companies that made pink slime to those that put yoga mat material in their buns.  Shareholders suffer if companies don’t response to the 21st century online consumer.

We live in a day and time where online bullying can take many forms.  At the end of the day, no one misses a beat, and companies that think they can pull a fast one on the consumer are quickly proven wrong.

Refinance Food

We have financed a food system that gives food companies the incentive to use the cheaper ingredients.  The cost of producing organic ingredients is disproportionately higher than producing conventional, genetically engineered crops.  On top of that, farmers that choose to grow organic crops don't get the crop insurance programs and marketing support programs.  In other words, their entire cost of production is higher.  That hammers all of us.   It hammers food companies trying to do the right thing.

And as much as any of us want to romanticize food, right now, this is our current capitalist structure, and until we refinance the food system, this won't be the first of these acquisitions.

What if the cost of production were the same?  What if farmers, regardless of what they choose to plant on their farms, could receive crop insurance programs and marketing support?  What if food companies, regardless of what they choose to use in their products, had to label their ingredients as genetically engineered or not.

Right now, there is economic discrimination.  Costs are disproportionately higher for those who want organic food, from the farmers growing it to the food companies using it to the families eating it.

Does anyone want it this way?   Does General Mills?  Do our farmers? Do our families?

But we weren’t given a choice.

Right now, our taxpayer resources are used to support the food system dependent on GMOs and chemicals.  What if at the voting booth, we got to check a box? 

Do you want your taxpayer resources to support the food system?  And if yes, which would you rather see support given to farmers growing organic ingredients? To food companies using them?

How do we want our tax dollars to work in the food system?

What would General Mills choose if price weren't an issue?   If there were an economic equilibrium, which ingredients would General Mills choose?  Genetically engineered or organic?  And why haven’t we structured our food system with this kind of pricing parity?

Right now, no one has been given the choice because of the financial structure executed at the federal level through the crop subsidy programs, the crop insurance programs and the marketing support programs.  They only go one way.

Is this acquisition a symptom of that unhealthy financial structure?  

Under terms of the agreement, General Mills will acquire Annie’s for $46.00 per share in cash. The proposed transaction has an aggregate value of approximately $820 million.

It's not a hostile takeover.  Annie's entered into it as a way to grow to reach more consumers, just like Stonyfield did with Danone or White Wave did with Dean Foods.

The question is whose compass is stronger?  What will consumers do to send the message to General Mills that being part of the anti-labeling campaign is detrimental to shareholders? 

Annie's has the wind at its back.  General Mills know that.  Consumers want "free from" food.  Food that is "free from" artificial ingredients, artificial dyes, growth hormones and genetically engineered ingredients. One look at the share price of Chipotle tells that story.

As more and more companies enter the organic space, either through new products or through acquisitions, it again begs the question: is the Grocery Manufacturers Association a relic of the 20th century?  If this organization is not working to meet the needs of its member companies, should it still exist in its current form?  Or should a new organization, let's call it the Food Production Association, be formed to meet the evolving needs of these brands in the 21st century?

Change at its very core begins with hypocrisy. 

If General Mills chooses to make a strategic shift and follow Annie's into an industry with a 12% compound annual growth rate, delivering a portfolio increasing full of “free from” foods, shareholders will be rewarded.  The rates of cancer, autism, food allergies and other conditions aren’t declining. This food awakening isn't a fad.

Annie's has the potential to be a powerful compass for General Mills.  If the companies are serious about their commitment to the 21st century consumer and their shareholders, they should step away from the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s anti-labeling campaign and join the consumer where she stands: in the grocery store aisles, reading food labels while holding the hand of a loved one with allergies, autism, EoE, cancer, diabetes or any one of the conditions impacting our families today and deliver exactly what she wants: food that is “free from” artificial ingredients and information about how she can protect the health of her family.

General Mills is already labeling genetically engineered ingredients in the products that they sell overseas, or they're not using them altogether.   

It's up to them if they continue to operate with a 20th century mentality or if they will move into the 21st century with the consumer and Annie's as a compass. 

Kellogg has a story to tell.  Chipotle does, too.

It's up to General Mills which one will be theirs. And if their shareholders are paying attention, the writing is on the wall, and it doesn't contain the letters "G-M-O."

 

 

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave
Monday, September 01, 2014

National holidays give us good reason to stop and give thanks for those who have worked and labored for the freedoms we have today. 

Labor Day has always been one of those days to me.  The schedule stops, we slow down, savoring the last days of summer before they disappear, and we give thanks.

And then a friend shared this version of the Star Spangled Banner.  I've known him since I was little.  We both grew up in Houston and have grandfathers who served in the church.  We were wired in similar ways when we were younger and expanded our beliefs as we got older.  

As I watched these six year old girls sing the National Anthem at a Texas Tech basketball game, my eyes watered as they always do when I hear this song.  But it was the lyrics at the end that resonated as if hearing them again for the first time.  

"The land of the free, and the home of the brave." 

That is what this food movement is all about, the fundamental freedom to know what is going into the food we are feeding our families, and the courage to stand up for that right as citizens.

Happy Labor Day.   

Threats, Stalkers and Why I Do This
Monday, August 25, 2014

For the first time last night, I told my parents about the threats that I have received in this work. 

It’s not a conversation that I’ve ever wanted to bring up with them, because a mother’s desire to protect her child doesn’t stop when she becomes a grandmother. 

Mom’s face drew in as I spoke.

I started at the beginning, with the threats that I had received in the first years of the work, the defamation that I endured and the meeting with an allergist that gave me the courage to move on.  He had testified in FDA subcommittee meetings.  His face was as white as a ghost when I shared what had happened to me.  “You don’t want to mess with this,” he said.  Fear came out of his every pore.  How could I not tell this story?

As we left his office that day, turning down the hallway to the elevators that led to the lobby of the children’s hospital in which he worked, there were children with cancer everywhere.  They were being drawn in little red wagons with rods attached for their IV drips.  Like little boats in an ocean.  How could I not tell this story?  I have to tell this story, I thought, so on I went.  Never once, in the nine years since, forgetting the look on that doctor’s face.  It was as if he had seen a ghost. 

The defamation continued, but so did the downward spiral of the health of one of our boys, so I continued on, like a soldier or a marathon runner, one foot in front of the other, each day as it came, not knowing where the slander would come from next.  In 2007, he was hospitalized, and my commitment to the work began at a level that was deeper than anything I had ever known.

Within a year, I was interviewed by a New York Times food writer who said, "You are their worst nightmare."  And the defamation began in earnest when Random House announced that I would be writing a book.  Accusations flew from everywhere.  I was a "PR whore", in it for the celebrity, why would anyone listen to a mother? 

My mail was tampered with.  What were they looking for? 

I had earned a full scholarship to business school and graduated as the top woman in my class before working on a team that managed billions in assets as an equity analyst.  Just because someone hadn’t bothered to learn my background didn’t mean that it didn’t exist.  Every case study in business school, every exam and time spent managing the a fund for the endowment committee still held. I’d done the work.  Let them talk .

And then came the threats from Kraft and Burger King.  I remember the day I learned of them, sitting in the office of a friend.  It was in July 2010.  I stared across at him, “They know who I am,” I said.  He almost laughed. “Yes, they know who you are.” 

Terrified didn’t even begin to describe the feeling. 

A year later, I delivered a TEDx talk that sent a scientist working at an ag school funded by Monsanto into orbit.  And the stalking, defamation and slander continued. 

As I told my parents about all of it, I told them about what happens on social media, how I show the children the bullying and use it as a lesson.  “Do I believe what these anonymous people say about me?  People that may not even be using their real names? People who won’t disclose their background or who funds their work?  Or do I believe what I know to be true about the work that I have done, and that for my entire life, I have done the work?  As an analyst that covered the food industry, as a business school student and at everything I have ever thrown myself into?” 

It’s not even a question.

I told my parents about the Arctic seed vault,  the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, that received inaugural shipments of 100 million seeds that originated in over 100 countries, and how it is there to protect seed diversity perhaps as a hedge against genetically engineered foods and the monoculture of soy and corn that it has produced, "with the deposits ranging from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato, the first deposits into the seed vault represent the most comprehensive and diverse collection of food crop seeds being held anywhere in the world."

 “Scary,” was all Mom could say. Here eyes were locked on me.  I don’t know if she was talking about what had happened to me or the seed vault.

“Don’t you worry that these stalkers are doing anything they can for attention?” She was talking about me. 

 I paused, looking her in the eyes but feeling her in my heart.

“Mom, I couldn’t not do this.  I learned too much, from scientists who were threatened, about studies that weren’t being done, about what countries around the world were doing to protect children.  There was something in that doctor’s eyes back in the Children's Hospital that first year that showed me what would happen if I turned my back.  If I had done nothing, this would have become a cancer in me….

I found love, courage and faith to move through it.”

My grandfather had been a preacher, Mom's dad, and for some reason in that moment, I thought about the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “Take the first step in faith.  You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

I do this work because I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation…where they will have the right to know what is in the food that they are eating as children around the world do.   

In order for that to happen, we must have the faith, courage and love to continue on. 

 

This is written in memory of Mark Pittman, an investigative reporter at Bloomberg News, that I met with in 2009. 

 

 

 

 

Is the Grocery Manufacturers Association Becoming a 20th Century Relic?
Friday, July 11, 2014
The Grocery Manufacturers Association is the voice of more than 300 leading food, beverage and consumer product companies, but will it be a relic of the 20th century?   

A question that it starting to pop up is: Is the Grocery Manufacturers Association still delivering value to its members?  Would members be better served by forming a new organization? What if a new group started?  Let’s just hypothetically call it the Food Production Association, and its mission was to meet the needs of companies in the 21st century?

A look back at the history of the Grocery Manufacturers Association suggests this might be a good idea.

Founded in 1908, the Grocery Manufacturers Association is a self-described, active, vocal advocate for its member companies and a trusted source of information about the industry and the products consumers rely on.

But do 21st century consumers actually turn to this organization today or is it a relic of the 20th century?  And is it an advocate for its members?

The organization’s website goes on to say:

“A vital role of GMA is to serve as a central resource for our members, providing industry model practices and a means for collaboration between members, retailers and service providers on important challenges and opportunities facing the industry."

The organization may have done that twenty years ago, but is it still doing that today?

The landscape of health has changed, and it is changing the landscape of food.  Today, the rates of diabetes is skyrocketing, 1 in 4 children has a chronic condition, 1 in 13 children has a food allergy, 1 in 10 has asthma and 1 in 68 has autism, with cancer now the leading cause of death by disease in American children.  The rates of these conditions are escalating, and parents are reading labels. 

Did any of us expect motherhood or fatherhood to look like this? Not at all.  No one would choose autism, life threatening food allergies or cancer.  No one.  But we find ourselves face to face with these conditions every day.  It is changing so many things in our lives, and it is changing how we approach the grocery store.

Some companies want to spend millions of dollars debating how we got here.  Parents don’t have time.  Their hands are tied managing these health conditions.  CNN/TIME reported that the additional costs of raising a child with food allergies is $4,200/year.  Consumers want transparency and denying them basic information about what is in the food we are feeding our loved ones is out of touch.

Over the last year, more than 60 state laws have been introduced to label genetically engineered ingredients in foods.  Consumers know about it, companies know about it.  Companies inside the Grocery Manufacturers Association are producing product lines without these ingredients, and those product lines are profitable pieces of their portfolio.  One look at the success of Kroger’s Simple Truth, “free-from” line demonstrates what a brand can do when it removes additives, GMOs, high fructose corn syrup and more.

Consumers want "free-from" food.  It's not about debating the "how" or the "why" we got here.  It's about meeting her where she stands in the aisle of the grocery store, holding onto a child with diabetes or food allergies, or shopping for parent with cancer.

Everyone is recognizing the need for food free from artificial ingredients.  Panera Bread recently announced that they are pulling these ingredients from their products, Target's Simply Balanced has committed to removing genetically engineered ingredients by the end of 2014, and Kroger is seeing record earnings growth with its Simple Truth product line, free from artificial ingredients and genetically engineered ingredients.  The brand went from $0 to $1 billion in revenue in two years

So if companies that are dumping the junk are being rewarded by both consumers and the stock market, shareholders and stakeholders, what purpose does the Grocery Manufacturers Association serve by getting in the way of that?  Is that in the best interest of its members?

As the Association spends record amounts filing a lawsuit against the state of Vermont which has just taken a big step towards bringing transparency to its food system for its consumers, you have to wonder if this is money well spent for its members.  What if instead, these members decided to leave the organization and start another one, one that truly met their needs in the face of changing consumer demand and the changing health of American consumers.  Or what if some got aggressive and filed a "loss of business" lawsuit against it given the decline that companies like Kellogg’s are seeing in sales and the resulting employee layoffs as they entrench on the GMO labeling issue? 

21st century families want free-from food.  It isn't complicated, and shareholders and stakeholders are rewarding the companies that understand that and are delivering products that meet that need. 

They're not debating the science, they're not filing lawsuits, they are simply meeting us where we stand: in the aisles of the grocery store shopping for the 1 in 3 American children that now has allergies, asthma, ADHD or autism.  They are building a new food economy, becoming icons for the 21st century consumer, making the Grocery Manufacturers Association look like a relic of the 20th century.

The $2.1 trillion food, beverage and consumer packaged goods industry employs 14 million U.S. workers.  As consumers opt out of food loaded with artificial ingredients, demand is growing.  From 2013-2018, demand for organic is expected to grow 14%, but in the United States, less than 1% of farmland is under organic farm management which means that we have to turn to countries like China and Romania for non-GMO or organic food.  We are literally outsourcing that entire economic opportunity.  It is not in the interest of our food companies, our families or our farmers.

If the Grocery Manufacturers Association was true to its mission it would meet the 21st century consumer where she stands, and it would be addressing this supply chain issue for its members.  But it’s not. 

As it stands, it is quickly becoming a relic of the 20th century, opening the door for another industry organization to form.

Can you imagine if Kroger, Target and other retailers joined together to form the Food Production Association whose mission was to build out a clean and safe food system and to secure the supply chain for 21st century families? Instead of channeling member dollars into lawsuits, it could grow the base of US farmland under organic management, so that we don't outsource this economic opportunity for our companies, farmers and country to our trading partners.

Cancer, autism, food allergies and other conditions we are seeing in the health of our loved ones are not “trends,” neither is the demand for transparency.  American consumers have a right to know whether the EPA regulates their corn as a pesticide or not.  Sixty percent of the world’s population has been given that right. 

Imagine an organization for the food industry that actually focused on securing a non GMO supply chain for American companies, rather than fight this shift in consumer demand and outsource this economic opportunity to China and Romania.  Here’s what a logo might look like. It's food for thought.

 

 


 

Why We Are All Made to Matter
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fifteen years ago, I covered Target as an equity analyst.  I learned the business model. 

I've learned the business model as a mom.  So when someone inside of Target's headquarters reached out, I responded. 

She had just lost her dad to cancer and wasn't sure where she wanted to go.  How could she be?  She had lost him too soon to an aggressive form of the disease, and she wanted to channel all of that into doing something. 

We talked about options and what it would mean to do something on the inside of Target.  "To truly make a change, stay inside," I told her.   It is where she could have a tremendous impact.

A few months later, we connected again.  "I'm staying," she said. "Would you come out and speak at our headquarters if we can make something happen?" 

"Absolutely," I said, but also shared that it may not be easy. 

I'd been at this long enough and been told by people on the inside of different companies how hard it could be to start the dialogue.  I understood.  The information was disruptive, but my response was always the same: "I won't let you down." 

So we developed the event and ways to communicate the invitation that did not threaten but invited. 

I arrived into Minneapolis in time for a few meetings and walked the city to get a feel for it and the people that live there.  It was absolutely beautiful, in only a way that a city that is buried under snow for half the year can be when the sunshine descends on it.  It felt like the entire town was outside. 

As I prepared for the presentation, I reviewed their recent earnings reports, press releases and other documents.  No one wants to be part of the problem, but change takes courage.  It is a lot like learning to ride a bike.  You need support because it can be a bit scary at first, but once you get it, it is liberating. 

At 11am, we were in the building.  It felt like a college campus, a palpable energy, young team members everywhere, buzzing in the halls, meeting over coffee.  Young.  It was young. 

Just before noon, our room began to fill.  There is something so deeply respectful about people from the mid west, and it permeated the space.  It was quiet, they knew that this was an area that has been controversial.  The seats filled quietly, then the introductions began, and I spoke. 

I covered Target when I was an equity analyst, I shopped at Target for diapers and baby supplies as a young mom.  It was as much a part of my story as any company.  To be there meant a lot. 

I spoke for 45 minutes.  They were quiet, leaning in.  I could feel it.  There is a responsibility in this work that is so real that every time I am in front of an audience, I feel the enormity of it.  So many were moms, I could feel that, too, and I could understand the heartache of learning something after the fact.  If American companies had formulated their products differently for moms, pregnant moms, families in other countries - without genetically engineered ingredients, artificial growth hormones or artificial dyes - why had they dumped that stuff into our food here? 

Why?  It hung in the air.  You have to land that carefully, as it can break your heart. 

So I spoke about the opportunity in front of all of us, to build a better food system, one that meets the needs of 21st century families, one that instead of using our taxpayer resources to build a food system dependent on chemicals, builds a food system for all of us, as we take on diabetes, obesity, cancer, food allergies and autism for the people that we love.

"There is nothing more patriotic that we could be doing," I said.  This is a fundamental human right, to be able to keep our families safe, especially given that food companies are already formulating their products without artificial ingredients for families in other countries.  We are not asking them to reinvent the wheel, simply to place the same value on the lives of our families that they have already placed on the lives of families in other countries."

Target has already committed to removing genetically engineered ingredients from their private label, Simply Balanced, by the end of 2014. 

"We can do this," I said.  "The opportunity in front of us is enormous.  The stock market is rewarding companies leading on this issue.  One look at the share prices of Chipotle, White Wave or Kroger tells you what is happening, as these companies embrace a 21st century food system, one that is free from all of the junk."

And I looked up.   In the back of the room, a man, slowly, as if in a total daze, wiped his eyes. One side, then the other.  And as I was finishing, he gently got up to leave, slipping out just before the end. 

That is the moment I will remember from today.  Because it doesn't matter who we are or where we work, when someone we love is hurt by cancer, allergies or any of these diseases or conditions, our hearts hurt the same way.  It is that force, that love, that will propel us to change this system, one family, one company, one product at a time. 

Written in memory of Randy Benson.

 

Wishes For My Teenage Girl
Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Dear sweet girl,

Today, you walk across a stage, graduating from middle school.  My heart is a muddle, as all of the memories come flooding back.  

It is too easy to remember you as a little one, to think of the days you learned to swim, to ride a bike, to read.  They feel so close, and I'm not quite sure how we can be here today already on the steps of high school. 

As I look at you and what is ahead, there is so much in my heart.  Your world is different to the one I grew up in, with Ask FM, Instagram, Snap Chat and other programs, you are just a flicker away from knowing everything.  But there are some things, offline in the real world that will remain true, and as you head into high school, these are a few of my wishes for you:

  • I hope that your first real kiss is with a boy that is kind and funny and true.  
  • I hope that you will continue to work hard. It will serve you later. 
  • I hope that you find a friend that lets you be your true self.  They are worth a lifetime of fake ones. Hold onto them.
  • Always be honest. You will be remembered for that.
  • Do what you love.  It may not always be easy or cool, but it will feed your soul in a way that all of the other stuff doesn't.  It will make you feel like you are dancing on the inside. 

The size of your heart is more important than anything else. In a world that is obsessed with thigh gaps, extensions and other ways to manipulate who you are, remember that your original design is beautiful.  Because beautiful on the outside comes from beautiful on the inside.  I will remind you of that until I'm done, because if you love yourself, the love you will have to give to the world will be limitless.

I am so proud of you, and the thought of only having you home for just four more years before sending you off to college is more than my heart can bear right now and my eyes are leaking, so I will put on some sunglasses and smile for you today and always.

I love you.

Mom xoxo 

Politics of the Plate: Marianne Williamson
Sunday, May 25, 2014

A few months ago, I was approached and asked if I would consider speaking at an event for someone running for Congress.  In all candor, my first response was to say no. 

In the past eight and a half years, I have learned more than I ever wanted to about the inner workings of our government.  It wasn't something I ever wanted to know. I was raised in a Republican family in Texas.  We were genetically engineered to be Republican.  You didn't question it, like going to church. It was just something that we did. I didn't question anything to do with politics.   

But then life threw a curve ball that made me question absolutely everything.  While some may think it was our youngest child's allergic reaction to a plate of scrambled eggs one morning, it was actually something else. 

A year into this work, launched in January 2006 when our youngest child had an allergic reaction over breakfast, one of our son's got very sick. He had been chronically sick, meriting two surgeries and constant medication, so when I took him to the doctor that day in February 2007, I suspected more of the same.  Instead our pediatrician said, "Robyn, you have to take him to Children's Hospital in Denver." 

"Let me call my husband so that he can come home to watch the other three" was my reply. 

"No," she said. "You don't understand, you have to take him right now."  He was so sick. 

And in that moment, I completely fell apart.  I had spent a year unearthing what was happening to our food system, learning about the money it, the politics, how broken it had become, how American companies made their products differently for eaters in other countries.  I had reached out to friends and family, trying to share this, and it had challenged every relationship in my life.  I didn't want to know what I'd learned, but I couldn't unlearn it.  I didn't want to have to be the one to speak out about it,  I had tried and been threatened.  Somehow, this was my story to tell. I didn't want it to be.

Our pediatrician had seen me through that first year, since our littlest child's food allergic reaction.  She had seen the toll that the work had taken.  She did not hesitate and took the other children until my husband arrived to get them, and she had us driven to Children's Hospital.

There was no one to call.  The support system was not yet there.  All I could think was, "How is this happening?"  We checked in, and  I watched our beautiful boy laying on that bed, his shock of white hair and little five year old body being prodded by nurses attempting to get an IV into his arm. They couldn't, so they just kept puncturing him, trying to get it in.  He lay there, so stoic and strong.  And I could do nothing. 

And in that moment, a nurse walked in carrying a tray of Fruit Loops and red jello for my sick son. 

It was as if the world stopped. 

I looked at her standing there with that tray, and I looked at my son, and I thought, "What am I really afraid of?"

Was I afraid of what people would say if I started talking about GMOs and the junk in our food, was I afraid of what my parents would say?  Was I afraid of the companies that I would be talking about? 

No, in that moment, I was afraid of losing my son.  And I crossed over into this work and never looked back.

So when a political campaign contacted me to see if I would speak at an event for a Congressional candidate, I wanted to say no.  I had seen the way the FDA worked under both parties, I had seen how former Monsanto employees, both Republicans and Democrats, served in our government, in agencies and on the Supreme Court, I had met with members of the campaigns for both presidential candidates in 2008 and both said that if this subject would compromise their funding ties, they would not be able to address it.  I was disillusioned by politics.

But I would not be doing what I am doing had it not been for the particular person that was doing the asking.  Not only was her work known around the world, but it had also touched mine.

Back in early 2007,  when I was questioning everything, I had a call with an old friend.  We had gone to college together at one of the most conservative schools in the country, Washington and Lee University.  He sang in our wedding.  We'd been there for each other through a lot. 

As I was sharing what I'd learned, how it had challenged so much of who I was and where I'd come from, I shared how I couldn't unlearn it.  "I have to do something," I said. "But who am I to do this, Lew?"

"I'm sending you a quote, Rob" and with that, he sent the following:

 

These words rang so true.  I read them everyday, through every fear, until I had them almost memorized. 

So when Marianne Williamson's campaign reached out and shared that she was running as an Independent, disillusioned by the partisan politics and the corporate financing of the system, I listened.  Her words, written years earlier, had such a profound impact on my life. And now years later, she was highlighting how the broken food system was symptomatic of other issues.

I thought about the work that I had done to help create a consumer awakening and shift, the work I was currently doing to shift capital so that clean and safe food is affordable to all families.  My work has always been non partisan. Cancer doesn't care if we are Republican or Democrat.  Our hearts hurt the same way when a child is diagnosed with autism.

Health is not partisan.  It is patriotic. And I thought about how politics follow the money.  Once the capital shifts, policy will follow, and we will need leaders in Congress who understand that the security of our country is very much contingent on a healthy and secure food system.  

I listened and when one of the team members shared that he had attended the same conservative school, Washington and Lee, there was something in that, an understanding that didn't need words, which led me to say yes.

The landscape of politics is changing as quickly as the landscape of food.  As much as we put both organic and conventional food products in our shopping carts,  families can be full of both hybrid shoppers as well as hybrid voters. 

42% of Americans are now registered as Independents, while only 31% are Democrats and 25% are Republicans, according to a recent Gallup poll.  To think that we only have a two party system, defined decades ago by generations that were not dealing with the issues we face as 21st century families is restrictive. 

We need systems that meet the needs of 21st century families.   

America's best ideas have come from outside of Washington D.C.  The unbridled spirit with which our country was founded is in the hearts and minds of millennials designing new technologies, fathers inventing food products worthy of our families and mothers protecting children with autism, allergies or diabetes. 

It is up to us to create the change, always has been and always will be.


 

Save the Date! Prizes, Fun & Food
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

OK, gang, it is obvious that our food supply has been junked up with artificial growth hormones, artificial dyes, genetically engineered ingredients and a whole lot of toxic pesticides required to grow them.  As a result, we now have to use the adjective "organic" to describe food that is made without them! 

Our grandparents would have just called it "food." 

So now is the time to join the Organic Voices community in getting the word out about organic food and the launch of a new campaign.  If you are coming up to speed, new to the lingo, the food world, what has happened to our food and would you like more information on organic food, farming and healthy food practices, then make sure to join us for a great celebration on June 2nd under the #onlyorganic hashtag from 6-7pm PST.

Who: @organic_voices
When: June 2nd
Time: 6-7pm PST (9-10pm EST)
Hashtag: #OnlyOrganic
Theme: Only Organic campaign launch celebration!
Hostess: Robyn O’Brien @foodawakenings
We are going to have some amazing panelists that represent some of the best brands and leaders in the organic food movement.

Panelists:

1.@Gary_Hirshberg
2. @latejulyorganic
3. @DrBronner
4. @OrganicValley
5. @annieshomegrown
6. @NaturesPath
7. @Happyfamily
8. @rudisorganic
9.@earthboundfar

Giveaways! 
  1. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap DVDs (5 winners)
  2. Only Organic gift bag (5 winners)
  • Reusable gift bag full of Dr Bronner’s Soap
  • Stonyfield free product coupons
  • Organic Valley free product coupons
  • Rudi’s Organic product
  • Late July Thins
  • Earthbound Farm free product coupon
  • Nature’s Path product
  • Annie’s Homegrown Cheddar Squares.
  1. Happy Family Gift packs of $75 value (2 winners)
  2. Robyn O’Brien book “The Unhealthy Truth” (3 winners)
  3. Myra Goodman books (3 winners)
  • “Food to Live By”
  • “The Earthbound Cook”
  • “Straight From the Earth”

To qualify for a giveaway, tweet out our promotional tweets and join the party!

Tweets:

Organic brands, leaders and giveaways at the @organic_voices party on 6/2 #onlyorganic 6-7pm PST
http://ow.ly/x7bW7 RT!

Join the @organic_voices party on 6/2 under #onlyorganic from 6-7pm PST Details: http://ow.ly/x7bW7 RT!

Love organic food? Join the @organic_voices party on 6/2 under #onlyorganic from 6-7pm PST Details: http://ow.ly/x7bW7 RT!

Curious about organic food? Join the @organic_voices party on 6/2 under #onlyorganic from 6-7pm PST Details:
http://ow.ly/x7bW7 RT!

 

 

 

 



Once We Know Better, We Do Better
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

For those working to make our food supply safer:

The amount of lead churned into the air by cars and factories has declined by more than 90 percent since the 1970s. The last drop of leaded gas was sold in the United States in 1995.

Once we know better, we do better.

The New Food Economy: Serve It Up
Friday, May 16, 2014
There is not a family in the country that isn’t impacted by allergies, asthma, obesity, diabetes, cancer or some other disease.  When these conditions impacted my family, I was paralyzed.  But paralysis wasn't an option, not with four little kids to look after, so I left Wall Street and a career as a financial analyst that covered the food industry and now stand on the front lines of the food movement.

 The CIA ranks life expectancy at birth for kids born around the world.  The US ranks 41st. The United Nations ranks childhood well-being for the top 29 most developed countries. The U.S. ranks 26th, just ahead of Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. This data challenges how we view our country and ourselves.

We can look at this as a crisis or as an opportunity. There is an explosion in the growth of ‘free-from’ products in the grocery stores, farm to table programs, farmers’ markets and investment vehicles to convert farms. From schools to corporations, people are getting involved, creating jobs, new opportunities and health. It’s time for a new food economy. It's an all-hands-on-deck time. The landscape in front of us is wide open and the economic upside is enormous.

Please join me at TEDx Front Range on May 22, 2014 to look at what is in front of us, and how becoming part of the new food economy is one of the most patriotic things we can be doing.

To get details, please click here.