Growing Roots for the Good Life

I am thrilled to be participating as a speaker at Sustainable Brands ’17 Detroit this year! I will be sharing the stage with two amazing panelists on May 23rd: Tyson Gersh, Co-Founder & President, The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, as well as Atlanta McIlwraith, Senior Manager of Community Engagement, Timberland.  Together, we will be discussing “Urban Gardens and Other Urban Green Spaces as Platforms for Brand-driven Shared Value.”

This is a topic dear to my heart, because for the past two years, to further the Unilever Food vision of sustainable nutrition: food that tastes good, does good, and doesn’t cost the earth, I have been spearheading an initiative to improve access to fresh food and education on nutritious cooking in underserved urban communities across the U.S.

We started in Unilever’s backyard – New York City, where access to fresh and healthy food is limited and sometimes unattainable at an affordable price for low income communities.  For example, East Harlem has fewer supermarkets and three times more fast food outlets per capita than the adjoining neighborhood of Upper East Side; the rate of obesity and diabetes is also three times higher.  To help combat this disparity, we formed a partnership with the City of New York and the New York City Housing Authority that focuses on urban agriculture as a part of the mayor’s Building Healthy Communities initiative.  Together, we’ve created a full-scale urban farm at the Senator Robert F. Wagner Houses, a public housing community in East Harlem. The Wagner Resident Farm is fully funded by Unilever and produce from the farm (over one ton per year) is provided free to the community, along with cooking classes focused on healthy eating led by Unilever chefs. Wagner Resident Farm also works in partnership with Green City Force, who employs local unemployed residents aged 18-25 as AmeriCorps members to provide them with opportunities to work on the farm on an ongoing basis alongside Unilever volunteers. Green City Force team members are engaged in both community service and in workforce training, and are uniquely qualified to contribute to the success of the farm. In turn, they become knowledgeable and passionate about healthy food, taking on leadership roles in educating their communities about healthy living and eating.

This program redefines the good life in two key ways. First, and most importantly, it is showing that healthy and sustainable food does not need to be just for the wealthy.  But critically, to make that happen, we must redefine how we work to create the good life.  We cannot do it alone.  Unilever has found that on their own—philanthropy, sustainable measures and business efforts cannot be fully successful. Only by working in partnership with governments, retailers and nonprofit organizations, were we able to amplify the power of all stakeholders and build a new sustainable model that creates a shared value for business, partners and communities by providing healthy, affordable food to underserved communities.

This year, we are expanding the program to 3 more markets: Miami, Los Angeles, and Houston, with an investment that will reach up to 4 million people.  We’re starting with schools, through school garden grants in partnership with Whole Kids Foundation and high school teacher scholarships for the Stone Barns Summer Teacher Institute, where they’ll learn a progressive curriculum in food system change to bring back to their students.  We hope to expand our urban farm model to these cities in the coming years as well.

I look forward to discussing this program and how it and similar initiatives can drive brand value and return on investment this year in Detroit. I hope you join us!

Tracy Shepard-Rashkin
Sustainable Communities Brand Manager
Unilever Food
May 12, 2017

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