In the natural products space, minority brand owners are beginning to claim more shelf space and, appropriately, more attention. The Nutrition Business Journal brought questions of race, access, and opportunity to three black natural products leaders, and learned that putting energy toward addressing food deserts and communities of color could go a long way. Look for more insight from Randy Jackson of Unify Health Labs and Kareem Cook of Naturade.
From rural Arkansas to Oakland, California, GW Chew has lived in two kinds of food deserts and witnessed many of the same health consequences in each. In 2016, he started The Veg Hub, a vegan restaurant where he also offers cooking demonstrations and supports community events. His Something Better Foods plant-based protein products is succeeding in Whole Foods, but he knows they aren't in the stores where many of his friends and family shop. As a black man, he knows he stands out in the natural products industry. He can make a difference, he says, one product, one grocery store and one customer at a time.
What can the natural products industry do to better understand and serve communities of color?
Chew: The natural foods industry is obviously lacking diversity. I don’t want to blame it on the industry, but from a practical perspective, there are not a lot of diverse players in leadership in the industry. You identify with who you are, and if you don’t have people that are part of these communities, you can’t identify with them. You might not think about targeting them as much. On a very pragmatic level, systemically there needs to be an intentionality of diversity when it comes to leadership within the industry, and not just new minority producers entering the industry, but also larger companies being very intentional on getting diversity in leadership. When it comes to diversity, I think all of that will help bring more awareness so that people can really speak to the needs of these communities. We just need to really focus on recruiting and developing diverse talent.
What other things could the industry be doing better?
Chew: When you start looking at communities of color, a lot of it starts with access. For example, you don’t have Whole Foods, you don’t have natural food stores. I think it’s really a systemic issue. I would say it’s more of a socioeconomic situation. If you live in a food desert, you don’t have access to natural food products. I don’t look at it from the perspective that people don’t want to eat healthy. So we need to improve access and get the products into the communities. I think the price points are another problem. The natural foods industry caters to the middle and upper class and just doesn’t reach a lot of communities. That’s the socioeconomic reality.
Do you think it’s possible for the industry to do something about access and pricing?
Chew: It’s a really big elephant in the room. How do you actually make that change? It’s going to take some innovation and risk-taking, from the whole supply chain to the stores. Co-ops are one thing I’ve seen on a smaller scale. In West Oakland, they have the Mandela Grocery Cooperative in a food desert. They have a lot of natural foods products, lots of different SKUs, and that’s what their mission is: to bring access. Other than that, you know, can you convert a small convenience store to start buying more natural products. I just think that it’s going to take a lot of education and intentionality from some of the bigger players when it comes to grocery channels and grocery stores, a lot of different intentional players working together to be able to make this happen.
Are there particular health or nutrition needs in communities of color that the natural products industry should be serving?
Chew: When you look at communities of color, disease rates are typically two to three times higher than in other areas. Cancers more lethal. Death rates are more intensified. That could be because of lack of health care, but one of the obvious things is that an ounce of prevention is far better than a pound of cure. I think there’s a huge, huge market opportunity as education is coupled with healthier food. I’ve always said this is a life or death issue. I lost family members. My dad passed away from heart disease, which could have been prevented by lifestyle. I’ve seen family members with obesity, diabetes, on dialysis. You deal with cultures who again have adopted unhealthy eating habits. It comes from a lot of the cheeses and dairy, and I will say that typically it’s concentrated in communities of color. But I will also say that communities want to eat better, and there’s a revolution happening when you start looking at millennials. A lot of us lost family members from disease. So, a lot of millennials are saying ‘I’m not going to repeat the same cycle.’ I’ve got friends in high school in a rural country town that are literally going vegan or vegetarian. They’re literally very conscientious of what they put into their bodies, because they’ve seen uncles and aunts and grandmothers suffer from disease. There’s a lot of intentionality on a local level from restaurants utilizing healthier food items. Disease is astronomical in communities of color. Again, it’s a life or death issue.
What has your experience been entering the natural products industry?
Chew: It can be disappointing at times. The industry lacks diversity, and it’s very blatantly clear when you go to Expo West. There’s not a lot of people of color representing products. I don’t get intimidated by that. For me, it creates an opportunity to stand out. I think it’s a blessing and a curse. People won’t forget me. At the same time, we can’t continue the same. In 20 years, we can’t see the same situation. So I’m thankful for consciousness that’s coming from leadership and from New Hope. We just want an opportunity. There are a lot of minority producers who are creating great products. Sometimes they need support. When there’s an intentionality to say, ‘Hey, here’s a minority founder, a wonderful product, a great story. Let’s do everything that we can to help support this and give them a platform to share that story.’ I think that’s the intentionality that I’m so grateful for and that doesn’t go unnoticed. But then there are the harder conversations, like hiring decisions and getting money to start companies. I see a bright future. At least I hope to see a bright future.
What’s next for your company?
Chew: We have an aggressive food service business that we’re going to be launching, bringing our proteins into various restaurants. We’re also looking at going into multiple regions. Right now, we’re just honestly solidifying our team, getting infrastructure built and trying to get a good growth foundation with the goal of being nationwide in the next two to three years. We want to be a smart brand that can be a power hitter in the industry and an advocate for these issues. I want to speak very clearly and lovingly and transparently about these concerns and try to make a difference.