Weekday mornings you will likely find MA Programs in Leadership and Change (C3) graduates John Iglesias (Management and Leadership ’11) and Aaron Stroud (Organizational Development ’11) in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s commercial kitchen, slicing, dehydrating, and packaging all sorts of fruit, from bananas and oranges, to kiwis and apples.
For the past year, John and Aaron have been bringing to life an idea conceived in Antioch Professor Dee Edelman’s coaching class in the summer of 2011.
“John brought in some dried fruit,” recalls Aaron. “He found the fruit at the University Food Bank and dried it himself.”
“They were going to throw it out,” explains John. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but people don’t take it because it doesn’t look like what we expect food to look like.”
It turns out that groceries, farmer’s markets, and even food banks discard millions of tons of good food each year. At the same time, approximately 16 million American children live with food insecurity.
“This was an opportunity to intervene in a system where there is a lot of waste and really attempt to make a difference and feed kids,” says Aaron. “Most food banks only distribute twice a week, and much produce goes bad in the time between distribution days. We saw that if we took the food immediately from our sources and dehydrated it, we would be able to extend its life, creating a net increase of food available.”
Pro Use Produce (PUP) was born. Over the next six months, John and Aaron prototyped processes for drying fruit, secured the support of St. Andrew’s, developed a pilot program with Rainier Valley Eats, and received a $10,000 grant from United Way of King County. They also developed relationships with a variety of local markets, including Madison Market and the Phinney Farmer’s Market, which donate surplus produce that has not been purchased.
In a year, Aaron and John have been able to dry and donate 2500 pounds of high quality food to the Rainier Valley Food Bank, food that would otherwise have never been eaten.
This fall they started collaborating with the Hunger Intervention Program (HIP), supplying dried fruit for their Healthy HIP Packs, which “offer nutritious and kid-friendly foods sufficient for 6 meals and 2 snacks per child.” They have also begun selling their products online and at eight locations around Seattle.
“We are hoping to get sales to where we can be sure we can be sustainable,” explains Aaron. “By and large, people have been very supportive. We are just getting the logistical pieces in place to create the capacity we need to do that.”
Two more C3 alums, June Moore and Scott Taylor, have joined the team to help with marketing, communications, and strategic planning.
Together, the four are applying what they learned in C3 classrooms to the real world challenges of building a socially innovative business.
“For Scott and I,” says June, “this has been a great opportunity to participate and explore. It’s been like an innovation and creation lab.”
But innovation and creativity aren’t always easy. One of their biggest challenges has been staying inspired despite the fact that they don’t know what will work, no matter how much research and planning they do.
“You have to make decisions,” says John. “You have to say, ‘As far as what we know, this is what we should do.’ And that’s what we find ourselves doing all the time. Sometimes we learn that we did something really poorly. Sometimes we were exactly where we needed to be. And that’s pretty validating, because a lot of the time it just feels like a shot in the dark.”
Their experiences at Antioch, they say, gave them the tools to take action and persevere in the face of such uncertainty.
“To move to something that isn’t certain is tough,” says Aaron. “In the beginning it was very much a battle to stick with it every day, to keep going forward not knowing what was going to happen. But what I learned in class, particular from Jean Singer and Dee Edelman, coalesced, allowing me to be creative. It was the platform that helped me to take this project on.”
As he speaks, Aaron places a last piece of kiwi on a tray full of fruit, then slides the tray into a commercial dehydrator. At another counter, John spreads strawberry glaze over a tray of bananas.
“Strawberries don’t dry very well,” he explains, “but strawberry-glazed bananas have become our most popular product.”
In Aaron’s truck three more boxes of fruit wait for processing. Tomorrow they pick up a newly donated commercial refrigerator, then to renegotiate their agreement with Rainier Valley Eats. In the next few months, five new retailers will begin carrying Pro Use Produce. Over the long term, Aaron and John imagine expanding their product lines to include cider, pectin, rehydrate-able meals, and compost.
Both men are smiling.
Despite the uncertainties, they have built something that creates value where so many see waste. They have built something that feeds children. They have built something that makes a difference.