If we can provide financial incentives for convenience stores to carry and sell good quality products and we can prepare and market them in a culturally relevant way, we believe we can earn the trust and loyalty of the communities we serve. In turn, this will help us not only expand our footprint and our food offerings, but also the potential impact we can make on addressing the symptoms of limited access to healthy and affordable food options.
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 Nil Zacharias.
Nil Zacharias is an entrepreneur, author, and podcaster who has spent the past 10 years focused on the intersection of food and sustainability. He is the co-founder and CEO of Plantega, a startup that’s on a mission to make plant-based food more accessible every day. He is also Head of Food Systems Innovation at Effect Partners (a social impact incubator), hosts the Eat For the Planet Podcast, and co-authored the Eat For the Planet books.
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?
After spending a decade working as a lawyer, management consultant, and a business executive in the digital media and online advertising space, I grew very interested about the impact of food on the environment in the year 2010. Given the massive scale of the problem, I became passionate about working in the space and quit my job at a successful internet company to focus on food sustainability.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Quitting a well-paying job to launch a media platform with no investors and no experience running a business was undoubtedly one of the bigger risks I have taken. What made it even more challenging was that the website I launched was designed to talk about sustainability, animal protection, and focus on plant-based food (something that was an unproven market). When I quit my job, the site had 300K unique users a month and I managed to grow it to 3 million a month within a year. Looking back that was one of the most challenging but rewarding years but it made whatever followed possible. And while that initial foray into entrepreneurship had its successes and failures, and my career has taken several twists and turns since then, the story of that first year stands out the most.
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?
Really depends how one defines success. But every time I have felt something I was working on was truly working, it was usually because I was passionate about the work I was doing and about the creative process of building something, and less focused on any particular outcome. Not sure this works for everyone, but if you are not enjoying the process of problem solving, idea generation, and executing a particular strategy, irrespective of the industry or field, success (no matter how you define it) is highly unlikely.
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?
I credit my father because he instilled in me a strong work ethic. He spent his entire career at the same company, where he started as a sales executive and rose all the way to upper management. His commitment, consistency, tenacity, professionalism, combined with the tangible positive impact he made for his employer and their clients, over several decades is a true source of inspiration for me.
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?
- Curiosity — I am curious about new ideas, people, different viewpoints, and experiences. If it wasn’t for my curiosity, I would have still been practicing law and not taken any risks and probably would be a miserable person today!
- Endurance — I can grind it out and stay disciplined and patient if I believe I’m on the right path. I don’t believe in the idea of overnight success. You can get lucky, but sustained success requires endurance.
- Purpose — You must be driven by something bigger than whatever our individual idea of success is. Something that aligns with your values and beliefs…your true north. Possibly too big a problem for you to solve alone or within your lifetime.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” — Maya Angelou
It has broad application. But I use it to guide my actions and my perceptions. First try to do something to fix the problem and if all fails, change your mindset around the problem. Either way you will end up in a better place from where you started.
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?
Food deserts are generally considered to be areas or regions where it is difficult or nearly impossible to buy affordable, good-quality, healthy and fresh food. That being said, I agree with food justice advocate, urban farmer, and author Karen Washington’s criticism of the term “Food Desert’ which she refers to as an outsider term which is inaccurate and misleading because it does not acknowledge the root causes of the problems of the food system and merely describes its symptoms. The term “Food Deserts” also implies that this phenomenon is naturally occurring and that such communities are desolate. Neither of these are accurate assumptions since communities impacted by food access issues are a result of systematic racism and oppression in the form of zoning codes, lending practices, and other discriminatory policies. Moreover, these neighborhoods or areas are full of life and vibrancy. Karen Washington prefers the term “food apartheid” which brings attention to the intersectional root causes that created low-income areas with limited access to affordable, good-quality food. The term “food apartheid” also points us towards working for structural change to address these root causes.
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?
Contrary to what the term implies, “Food Deserts” don’t lack food. In fact, there is often an overabundance of food. What these neighborhoods lack is choices. The only food widely available at an affordable price is what’s sold by fast food chains and convenience stores (cheap meat and ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt).
The impacts of this lack of choice are several, ranging from the challenge of finding foods that are culturally appropriate, to meeting the needs of the dietary restrictions of people living within the community.
The long-term effects of limited choices are devastating to the health and well-being of these communities, including higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
The root causes of this problem can be traced back to several political, economic, socio-cultural, environmental and other external factors that influence food access and control. This includes a system of segregation and racially discriminatory economic and political structures at nearly every level of society, to the corporate consolidation and control within the food system. Food deserts are merely a symptom of a much more complex and interconnected web of socio-economic problems that are woven into the very fabric of American society. In other words, there are no easy solutions to get us out of the complex problems that brought us to this place.
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 run Plantega, a community-powered food systems solution that’s on a mission to make plant-based food more accessible every day. We partner with category-leading plant-based brands that manufacture high quality products and bring them to convenience stores (commonly known as bodegas in New York City) via our unique all plant-based grill menu and retail installations. We are a catalyst that’s trying to jumpstart the effort to democratize access to healthy, sustainable food in a way that empowers local businesses to earn more revenue, while offering consumers good food at affordable prices.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
We are very proud to be rooted in the communities we serve. We are powered by the community because our team is made up of people from the neighborhoods where we sell food. Moreover, Plantega is designed to empower the community because we rely on decentralized, local distribution via independently owned bodegas across New York City. Providing more local jobs and bringing more revenue for local business is at the heart of what we do.
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.
This problem is too complex for a 5-step plan. For example, it isn’t as simple as adding more grocery stores or selling better products. What is needed is an entire reimagining of how food is distributed and consumed in a way that can spark a shift both culturally, as well as a socio-economic sense in areas that have limited access to health and affordable food options. We believe that Plantega is just one small step in this direction. If we can provide financial incentives for convenience stores to carry and sell good quality products and we can prepare and market them in a culturally relevant way, we believe we can earn the trust and loyalty of the communities we serve. In turn, this will help us not only expand our footprint and our food offerings, but also the potential impact we can make on addressing the symptoms of limited access to healthy and affordable food options.
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?
Leaders in this space I respect are Karen Washington (food justice advocate, urban farmer, and author), Bryant Terry (plant-based chef, food justice activist, and author), and Linda Goode Bryant (documentary filmmaker, activist, and founder of Project EATS). I respect these three individuals for the tremendous work they have done to educate and inspire people to create a new narrative around food sovereignty, as well as culinary innovation and food justice advocacy.
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?
Ban factory farming, end subsidies for meat and dairy, and provide more financial incentives for urban farming.
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. 🙂
End industrial animal agriculture or factory farming, the single most destructive industry on the planet. It currently occupies more than half of the world’s land resources, uses the majority of our freshwater, and drives more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. If that wasn’t bad enough, it is also one of the leading drivers of deforestation, air and water pollution, and species extinction.
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. 🙂
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website: https://eftp.co/
My twitter: https://twitter.com/nilzach
Plantega’s website: https://eatplantega.com/
Plantega’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/eatplantega/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.