Volunteer — Every year, we have a company event to volunteer and assist food banks. Last year, we rose money, made care packs and brought fruits/vegetables to a local community in need. This year, we are volunteering at the Greater Chicago Food Depository to help pack items to be sent to various food banks around our city. By being active and vocal in the space, hopefully we can also encourage others to do the same.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Chan.

Jennifer Chan is the founder and CEO of Banato, a banana-sorbet bar company which sells dairy-free treats that have no added sugar. Banato seeks to educate the local community about the importance of fruits and vegetables while spreading awareness of food scarcity. The company is on a mission to make healthy foods accessible to all people.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Our story is an odd one — It all began with a beaty pageant. Once upon a time, a local Chicago beauty pageant didn’t have enough contestants. That is how I, local comedian, somehow got thrown into the mix. Given the short time frame to prepare and paranoia of being a public embarrassment, I tried an extreme diet: I cut out all added sugars.

During that time, the only thing that saved my sanity was fresh batches of homemade banana-based sorbet. That is, until my roommates started eating it. All of it.

Now, two years later, it is hard to believe how far we have come. I still make all of our Banato with no dairy and no added sugar, while teaching our customers about fruit! I hope to prove to people that “indulgent” can still be “healthy.”

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Wow, it’s hard to pick just one. I think the story that sticks out to me the most happened at the very beginning of starting Banato.

It was our second festival and we were a small cart in the middle of an art market selling our banana sorbet. A customer came by, bought some Banato, and walked away. Then a few moments later, she came running back.

“I have some feedback I have to tell you,” she exclaimed. The woman pulled out a piece of paper, wrote the words “life changing” on it, and handed the sheet of paper back to us.

I was in complete shock and still have that small piece of paper. It always reminds me why it is important for us to continue what we are doing. Many of our customers are small children or have dietary constraints which prevents them from eating ice cream. I think about the rising obesity rates and our cultural dependence on added sugars. Why not eat a banana instead? I think Banato can change the world.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “He with a ‘why’ can endure almost any ‘how’” and our company is proof of that. I started Banato as a festival pop-up in July 2019, which happened to be right before the global pandemic. During 2020, our market (quite literally) disappeared. We had a choice to keep going or to close our business. I met with my team to decide our next steps and we made a critical move: We decided to help others throughout the pandemic and fulfill our mission of making healthy foods accessible to all people.

I truly believe that when the universe takes, it is time to give back and help others. Through the lockdown, we brought Banato to essential workers in grocery stores. We raised money for foodbanks and brought Banato to Black Lives Matter protests to stand in solidarity with our community. In 2020 alone, our fan base increased by over five times and, more importantly, we have a group of fans who genuinely care about our company.

I hope others see our story and also decide to be kind and lean into their mission during times of hardship. Obstacles will happen. Pandemics can happen. However, during those dark hours, go back to the foundation of “why” behind a company.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Gosh, there are way too many people on this list. However, if I had to choose one, I would have to give credit to one of my best friends in the world and the roommate who encouraged me to start this business: Kevin Dinh. Aside from being the first original beta tester for Banato, Kevin was the person Banato could always count on.

Right before launching Banato, I found an ice cream cart on Craigslist. I started communicating with the seller and he suddenly asked if I was able to pick up the cart from his house. Without even hesitating, Kevin agreed to go with me to this random stranger’s house over an hour outside the city in order to pick up an ice cream cart. That is a true friend.

Ideas are incredibly vulnerable at the beginning and I was incredibly fortunate to have a best friend who believed in me before my parents or anyone else. Without that initial support, I am not sure where our business would be.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Love for what we do

The food industry is an incredibly difficult and labor-intensive path. Personally, I don’t do this for the money. I choose to run a food business out of love for food and cooking. When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike for miles to the library just to check out cookbooks. Food has always been something I am passionate about and that comes through in our products.

2. Never running from challenges

Our business was founded in July 2019, right before the global pandemic. During 2020, we could have shut our doors, but instead we pivoted to online delivery. There are always opportunities in every challenge.

3. Compassion

In my company, a job requirement we always list is: “Commitment to the community you serve.” I am proud that every member of our team truly cares about the community and that compassion for others helps to drive us forward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One Buddhist koan I always tell to my team is: “The goal is the journey.” I hope that our journey is one filled with love, kindness, and fun. If it isn’t, what is the point of continuing on the journey?

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

Close. A food desert is an area where residents lack access to fresh food. In my city, Chicago, there are areas where people can’t buy fresh fruits, vegetables, or meats without owning a car. Within these areas, the only source of food is corner stores, which barely have any nutritious offerings. Food security is a large issue in our country.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

It is truly a sad issue on so many levels. Without access to grocery stores, many community members rely on food banks for food staples such as fruits and vegetables. Some food banks in Chicago feed hundreds of families per week. For instance, the Saint Columbanus Food Pantry provides food to 500 families each week. With the impact of Covid-19, I am sure demand for the food pantry has only gone up. I have heard stories of families lining up as early as 5am in lines stretching around the block for their food. I don’t believe this is a sustainable system to provide proper nutrition to communities.

There is also a human dignity element. Often, food pantries will give these community members bags from Aldis or other local stores to give the illusion of grocery shopping. Sadly, for some of these food banks, the nearest grocery store is a mile or more away. Without transportation, it would be incredibly difficult to actually visit the real stores themselves.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

I am sure this is a multi-faceted issue, but I believe a large contributing factor is a lack of attention and awareness to this problem. Food deserts are a growing issue in our communities, yet very little is being done. There is also very little discussion about the nutrition gap in our society. If there are two children at school and one is able to have a nutritious meal at home while the other does not have any fruits or vegetables, how are these kids going to compete? How is the second kid going to be able to concentrate and excel in school?

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

I don’t believe that food security is an issue which can be solved overnight, but the first step is to bring this problem to light. My company aims to teach others about the importance of fruits and vegetables while spreading awareness of key charities which are on the front lines of this food desert crisis. I would like to make my company a bridge to help local food banks and other organizations combatting food security receive the attention they need. From small actions, such as social media shouts, or larger team days where we volunteer directly for food banks, I hope that our company’s involvement in the cause can encourage others to get involved as well. We call this our “Feed Chicago” initiative.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

In May 2020, the southside of Chicago was significantly impacted Covid-19. During the lockdown, several food banks closed which amplified a troubling situation. We couldn’t sit idly and watch. So, in response, Banato raised 2000 dollars to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and we created care packages for families in impacted areas. We gave each family a reusable grocery bag filled with fresh produce to last a week. The local pastor later wrote us a letter to tell us that the recipients of our grocery tote bags were truly grateful. Hearing stories of families caught in this crisis and seeing the food bank first hand made me realize how big this problem is.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I can’t speak for all people, but here are a few things that my company is doing to actively alleviate this problem.

  1. Speak up

As I mentioned earlier, one of the largest problems that I see is a lack of awareness of the issue. There are people in our community who are not able to access essential foods and Banato is extremely vocal about this. If other business and civic leaders made a simple post on social media or just mentioned that this exists, imagine the number of conversations this could spark. As a small business, we may not be able to craft legislation, but at least we can begin a path for change.

2. Give back

We, as a small business, are an extension of our community. Personally, I feel a great sense of responsibility to serve our community where we can. We regularly donate to food banks with our products, providing produce, or financially.

3. Volunteer

Every year, we have a company event to volunteer and assist food banks. Last year, we rose money, made care packs and brought fruits/vegetables to a local community in need. This year, we are volunteering at the Greater Chicago Food Depository to help pack items to be sent to various food banks around our city. By being active and vocal in the space, hopefully we can also encourage others to do the same.

4. Collaborate with others for this cause

We collaborate with local artists to raise money for local food banks. Last year, we collaborated with the Chicago-based painter Brie Hines to create an “Art Saves the World” shirt. A percentage of all sales from this shirt went directly to benefit the Greater Chicago Food Depository. I believe we don’t need to tackle this problem alone — we can all work together to help communities in need.

5. Collaborate with others in this space

Over the years, I have been grateful to interact directly with the nonprofits who are helping people on a daily basis. The Love Fridge in Chicago is an amazing community refrigerator program. Sarah’s Circle is an organization that provides housing to homeless women. The Saint Columbanus Food Pantry and Common Pantry have been feeding hundreds of families every week for generations. All of these organizations constantly inspire me to do better and be better.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

There are so many incredible organizations we have had the great privilege to work with. However, I would like to recognize the Greater Chicago Food Depository and their work providing food to 700 food banks in our city. Through our efforts partnering with local food banks, we know that the Greater Chicago Food Depository plays a critical role combatting hunger.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I am not sure how this can be solved from a legislation standpoint, but I would like to see some way for these areas to receive produce without needed to rely on food banks.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I aspire to start a movement where fruits and vegetables are cool/trendy — particularly among kids!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama is one of my greatest inspirations. Not only is she from Chicago, but she has been fighting for kids to eat more fruits and vegetables for years. Hopefully we can help to continue this work.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow our journey on Instagram at @Go.Banato and join our mailing list at www.banato.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.