Start small — there are more food deserts and neighborhoods in need of fresh food than you might realize. Start by getting active locally and learning the needs of your own community.
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 Noah Robbins, CEO of Ark Foods.
Noah Robbins is the founder and CEO of Ark Foods, a modern-day farming company making fresh food accessible. Growing up with parents in the citrus industry, he founded Ark Foods in 2013 with a mission to follow in their footsteps, but to diversify big agriculture farming models. Today, Ark Foods is the largest domestic grower and distributor of Shishito peppers, while the brand spans unique vegetables and a line of clean label, plant-based meals.
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?
I grew up with parents in the citrus industry, so agriculture was always a possible path for my own career. After college, I started working at a farm on the east coast. I had an “a-ha” moment in my early twenties when I saw Shishito peppers cropping up at almost every farmer’s market in NYC, but could never find them at grocery stores to cook at home. Ark Foods was founded to make fresh, interesting vegetables more accessible to everyone. What started with one pepper has now turned into a multi-vegetable farming operation and the expansion of our Clean Label Eats convenience line, which features Clean Label Salads with unique vegetables and vegan dressings, and Veggie Bowls, which are plant-based takes on classic comfort foods like Cauliflower Mac and Cheese.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Landing our first account with Whole Foods was a major moment for me and the company. Seeing the branded Shishito package hit shelves for the first time was a huge realization that I was on the right track. What’s been truly amazing is seeing the continued demand for Shishitos and other vegetables rarely seen in home kitchens just a few years ago. We’re now the largest grower and distributor of Shishito peppers in the U.S., and have been able to latch on to this customer base and introduce them to a world of wild vegetables, like Purple Bell peppers and Honeynut squash. If we can continue to bring offbeat veggies to more people at an accessible price point, the sky’s the limit when it comes to our mission of “fresh food for everyone.”
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?
It would have been easy for us to stick with just peppers. We’ve been lucky enough to attract top-tier talent in the vegetable world that has helped us break through into new plantings, and challenged us to diversify our product lines beyond just vegetables. The tipping point has really come in the past few years with expansion into better-for-you consumer packaged goods with our Clean Label Eats line. We’re excited by the growth we’ve seen and are looking forward to the future.
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?
So much of my knowledge and success in this industry is rooted in my parents’ work in the citrus industry. As kids, my sister and I would visit the groves and really absorb what it takes from an operations perspective. We were able to develop a working knowledge of fruits and vegetables that has been invaluable to founding and growing Ark Foods.
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, flexibility, and treating others like family.
Curiosity drives the Ark Foods team every single day. From discovering new seeds to developing and innovating new products, it’s critical to wake up every day with a sense of curiosity and eagerness to discover something different.
Flexibility is key in farming. It’s rule number one. We’re at the mercy of weather, field conditions, and so many unknown factors every single day. You have to be able to roll with the punches.
At Ark Foods, we treat our entire network like family. That extends beyond our HQ to our farms, and even further into our retail relationships. Kindness and respect can go a long way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces — just good food from fresh ingredients.” — Julia Child. This is our ethos at Ark Foods, and my own personal approach to cooking. For us, fresh vegetables are our north star, and inspire endless innovation.
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 areas of the country — even within major cities — where access to fresh, nutritious, culturally relevant food is unaffordable, or simply unavailable. While you might be able to find fast food or junk food easily, a food desert is specifically related to the lack of access to healthy food, like fruits and vegetables.
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?
Lack of affordable, nutritious food will continue to have major health consequences for communities without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, notably obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Food deserts are a result of decades of systemic injustices and inequities in our food system. The term dates back to the suburban sprawl of the 60s and 70s. This movement meant that grocery stores stocked with fresh produce and plenty of options sprawled out, too. Rural and urban areas were left with fewer resources, which led to the rise of convenience stores packed with shelf-stable items. A continued lack of resources and disposable income has led to a generational cycle of food deserts that is hard to break. Those seeking different options are often further challenged by a lack of knowledge or cultural relevance when it comes to cooking and consuming newly available options. It’s a crisis that continues to shift every day across America, and there is a lot of opportunity for myself and other food founders to learn even more.
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?
Accessibility is everything to us. Beyond just farming diverse vegetables, we work to make sure our price point at the grocery store is as affordable as possible to get fresh, clean ingredient food into the hands of more people. There is also a learning curve when it comes to fresh produce, not just in food deserts. A lot of adults who hated broccoli as kids still hold onto those memories and haven’t given it another try later in life. Our team is tasked with thinking of new ways to get vegetables into more hands (even skeptical ones!), and we’ve been able to find incredible opportunities in our own city with community-based partnerships.
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’ve worked year-over-year with partners like City Harvest to donate fresh vegetables directly from our farms to food pantries. If we have veggies to spare, we’re donating them to communities where access and affordability for fresh produce are limited. In early 2021, we began a vegetable donation partnership with local community fridges in NYC neighborhoods, which are critical to providing access to fresh, healthy food. Seeing people eager to support their neighbors through food has been inspiring, whether it’s dropping by to clean out the fridges, or even make their own donations. We’re continuing this effort with no plans of slowing down and hope to grow our involvement in the future.
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.
- Start small — there are more food deserts and neighborhoods in need of fresh food than you might realize. Start by getting active locally and learning the needs of your own community.
- Get creative — free fridges and community gardens are innovative ways to get fresh food directly into food deserts.
- Educate and excite — a big barrier is not knowing how to cook and enjoy vegetables as a main source of nutrition. Bring cooking demos and free produce boxes to community events to spark inspiration.
- Tap into transportation — organize free rides or carpools to farmers markets and grocery stores with a wider variety of healthy options.
- Team up — regularly meet with other businesses and leaders to outline impactful ways to get involved and bring more awareness to food access issues.
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?
While there are a lot of big names in the food world, I’ve been most impressed by grassroots efforts to combat hunger and access to fresh food. There are new community fridges and free pantries popping up across the country each and every day, and really making an impact on the ground. Beyond the fridge and pantry organizers, it’s been incredible to see how local communities are ready to roll up their sleeves to feed their neighbors.
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?
Healthy eating habits develop at a young age, and while there have been improvements in school food, we still have a long way to go. We need more legislation in place to ensure kids are having their nutritional needs met through their school food programs, and build upon the hard work that has happened to this point. It’s one thing to feed kids, and it’s another to nourish them with healthy foods so they can thrive.
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 would love to see fresh fruits and vegetables as available and affordable as fast-food french fries. There’s a culture of convenience around fast food that hasn’t permeated the produce industry yet. Let’s make vegetables craveable and convenient!
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. 🙂
David Bronner of Dr. Bronner’s soaps. I’ve always been inspired by how that company is unwavering on key issues that matter to them. They’re really doing things the right way as a company and for their customers. David is one of the leaders I really look up to.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can check out our full product line, locate a store, learn more about our farming practices, and find plant-based recipes on our website, arkfoods.com. And, we’re always serving up fun veggie content on our Instagram, @arkfoods. Give us a follow!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.