Build with the community, not on it. When addressing problems, like food deserts, businesses shouldn’t be prescriptive. Businesses and civic leaders shouldn’t rush in and say, “We think you need this in order to solve your problems”. It’s important to bring the community alongside before, during, and after to make sure their voice is heard throughout the process. Community members will be more welcoming of your organization and projects if they know they are part of the solution.

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 Pete Yonkman.

Pete Yonkman is president of Cook Group and Cook Medical in Bloomington, Indiana, starting in 2001 as in-house counsel. Pete is actively involved in community issues, including adult education, substance use disorder, workforce development, fostering start-ups, and creating a business culture that supports entrepreneurs. He believes that industry has the potential to be the greatest agent of social change; its power just hasn’t been realized yet.

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?

For some reason, I’ve always had a healthy sense of curiosity about what makes people tick, both individually and in groups. That led me to study psychology and philosophy in college, and then the law. Those areas of study gave me a sense of how our brains process information, how we use that information to think about the world, and then how we use ideas to organize ourselves as a community and society. I was fortunate to attend school in the same town as the headquarters of one of the world’s leading healthcare companies. Through good luck and some common networks, I found myself working for a true unicorn — a family-owned, global medical device company that believes it has a responsibility to be an active partner in the community to help ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.

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

I worked closely for many years with the founder of our company, Bill Cook, before he passed away in 2011. He was brilliant, a relentless entrepreneur and just a funny, good human being.

I was in my office one day and he said, “What do you know about trains?” I said, 
“Absolutely nothing.” And he said, “Perfect. I want you to go out and buy me two commuter trains. I’m tired of hearing about everyone just studying and thinking about high-speed passenger rail in our state. Let’s just go buy some, put them on the track, and see if we can get people to ride the damn things.”

Sadly, we didn’t get that done before he passed, but experiences like that taught me that after a while you have enough studies and information. At some point, you have to take action and see what works.

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?

I don’t think of it as a tipping point but more a series of emotional and mental evolutions that seem to happen as you get older and have access to wider experiences, both good and bad. I always joke with our team that every time we go through a challenging time it’s the best thing that will ever happen to us. We are the lucky few who get to be in the seat to learn how to solve such a complex problem. I cherish every one of those character-building opportunities. You are always a different person coming out of them.

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 had a law school professor who terrified me. He would call on people at random and ask the unlucky victim a series of increasingly challenging questions about the law. If you gave a non-intelligent answer, he would just stare at you and move to the next person. If you made it to the end of his questioning, which rarely happened, he would simply say, “Well done”. I made it my mission to get a “Well done”.

That forced me to think much deeper about the issues and to prepare for any possible nuance. What I learned from that process is that the law is a set of values and ethics we as a community evolve through time, that there is no “right” answer to most questions but rather choices we must make, and that words have meaning but only those which we choose to impart to them. I don’t remember whether I got the “Well done”, but I use the lessons he taught me every day.

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?

First and always, curiosity. How can you look at the world and see something that is working spectacularly or that is going horribly wrong and not want to understand why? Early in my career, I loved to go to cross-functional meetings because I got to hear about what was happening outside of my little part of the world. I learned who was a good manager of people and issues and who wasn’t. I incorporated the good and vowed never to do the bad. Today, I sometimes look around meetings and see younger folks who tune out when their turn to speak is over. I understand why, but I don’t get it. Aren’t they curious?

Second, and highly related to curiosity, is the ability to listen and ask the right questions. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to meet people working in all areas of our community. And I learn something new from every person I meet. Strangely, everyone talks about listening, but they don’t seem to know what it means. I met a person recently who was working on a community initiative that fit with our mission. We could have easily aligned our resources to make an impact. But she never stopped to ask or learn about what we had to offer. She just kept rolling with her own story, never thinking that there might be opportunity if we both learned a little about each other.

Finally, I would add communication. Once you have an idea or plan, you have to communicate the why and how over and over and over again. People need context for things, especially when they are new. Let them know the bigger picture and what you’re trying to accomplish, not just the transactional part you need them to play. The results will be infinitely better.

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

Before Bill passed away, he would stop by my office on his way out and say, “Work hard and save your job.” He was kidding, of course, but it always made me think about whether what I was doing was really moving the needle or if it was work that was just shuffling the papers around.

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?

I think that the definition of a food desert is subjective and multi-faceted. Is it distance from a grocery store? Is it the types of food available? Is it the availability of transportation? If you look for answers to these questions, what you will find is that a lot of time, money, and energy has been spent trying to define food deserts and as it turns out, there isn’t a consensus. And because there is no consensus, this leads people to think that the solution is to fund another study to understand the problem. If you do a google search for studies proposed for food deserts the results list goes on for pages.

I don’t know the scientific definition of a food desert, and there might not be one, but I can tell you what our neighbors in Northeastern Indianapolis have to say about living in one.

Living in a food desert means: Having to regularly check in on your neighbors to make sure they have enough to eat. Riding the bus more than an hour round trip to go to the grocery if the weather cooperates. Planning your shopping because fruit is only available on Tuesdays and vegetables maybe on Thursdays. Going to the grocery in a different community feels like going to a different world. And it means watching families shopping for groceries at the gas station.

Now, do a google search to see how many proposed solutions to food deserts have actually been implemented. Very few.

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?

Some of the consequences that can result from a food desert are more obvious: Lack of access to adequate nutrition can result in health issues like obesity, diabetes, etc. That problem is then compounded by a lack of access to proper health care or the inability to afford insurance or even drive yourself to the doctor.

Other consequences are much more emotional and deeply embedded in identity and a sense of self-worth. When you consistently see businesses, like grocery stores, leave your community it feels like you don’t matter. It seems like a simple idea, but a grocery store can bring hope. Grocery stores and the people who make them run are deeply intertwined with our idea of food security, family, and ultimately community. We all understand that access to food is essential to our ability to sustain ourselves. Without that nothing else is possible.

For many, the idea of a grocery closing doesn’t seem all that traumatic. You could just go to the next one down the road. But what if all the groceries in your town closed? What if one-by-one all those institutions that are vital to a community started to shut down too? If restaurants boarded their windows, schools started to get run down from lack of investment, the roads were neglected, the water supply wasn’t safe because the pipes were old, the banks decided there wasn’t enough money to justify a branch, if developers decided there wasn’t enough money to be made in new houses — you might start to wonder if you were living in a community at all.

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

Grocery stores have consolidated and squeezed out many of the independent grocery stores. This limited access of course but it also had the effect of sucking up all of the knowledge of how to run a grocery store into the few remaining big players. As they got bigger, so did their stores. These massive stores need to be in communities that can support them, which often means wealthier areas of town.

In the instance of Northeast Indianapolis, the community has had five grocery stores leave in the last five years. This has left 100,000 people with limited access to food.

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?

Cook’s primary business is medical device manufacturing, and our largest facility is in Bloomington, Indiana. Recently, we needed to expand our manufacturing by about 100 people. We decided that rather than adding those jobs to a community where we already have an existing footprint, we could use the opportunity to partner with a community that could truly benefit from having the work.

This led to our partnership with a community in Northeastern Indianapolis, an area that experienced the loss of jobs and opportunities for upward mobility as several large employers left or outsourced the work. As we engaged in discussions and started to listen to our new neighbors, we quickly learned that food access was a significant problem.

Fortunately, we also met Michael and Markcus, two local entrepreneurs who grew up in the neighborhood and are passionate about growing their existing corner market. So we partnered with them, the local community development organization, and the community foundation to start construction on a brand new, 15,000 square foot, full-service grocery store. Through this unique partnership, the local entrepreneurs will own the business, real estate, and building in a rent-to-own model. The start-up capital and facilities will be provided by the community partners, which removes the debt risk from the business owners. We’re also working with Martin University, Indiana’s only Predominantly Black Institution of Higher Learning, to create a curriculum that will enable others to learn how to own and operate local grocery stores.

Access to food is a continuum challenge, and we know we’re not going to be able to solve all of it. We will always have people who need food support. One significant challenge we’ve found in a food desert is the lack of community. We’re trying to not only provide access to food but also create a feeling of community — to create somewhere you can meet your friends.

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 never meant to get into the grocery business. The Indy Fresh Market came about as a follow-up to our 100 manufacturing jobs. This project is a demonstration that if you listen to those already doing work in the community, big change can follow. We’re working in the community in such a way that we’re adding our resources to the community voices already doing good work.

We’re partnering with other organizations to help address a need, by bringing our expertise, skills, and resources together to make a positive change. We can’t do it alone.

What we’re doing is helping provide Michael and Markcus with the support and resources they need to expand their corner market into a full-service grocery store. If you want to talk about proud, just take a look at Marckus’s grandma on Facebook. She couldn’t be prouder of her grandson, and she makes sure the world knows.

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.

Regardless of the problem you’re trying to solve — be it food deserts or any other social issue I think it’s critically important to:

  • Be a part of the community. Don’t just show up and start building your store or your program. Become actively engaged with the community and the people who live there before you lay the first brick. Join community meetings. Attend community events. Go out and meet the people who live there. Most importantly, be an active listener. Hear what the residents want, not what you think they need.
  • Build with the community, not on it. When addressing problems, like food deserts, businesses shouldn’t be prescriptive. Businesses and civic leaders shouldn’t rush in and say, “We think you need this in order to solve your problems”. It’s important to bring the community alongside before, during, and after to make sure their voice is heard throughout the process. Community members will be more welcoming of your organization and projects if they know they are part of the solution.
  • Add your voice and resources to what is already happening. Communities already have people there who know and understand the issues. Find those people. As you become part of the community and learn more about its history, you can align resources with the community that is already there.
  • Partnerships. No single entity or organization can do it alone. A single entity can’t solve complex issues, like a food desert. Businesses and leaders should aim to partner with other like-minded organizations that can fill gaps to help find solutions. Each partner can bring their expertise and resources to the table and together, you can find ways to address problems.
  • Finding stakeholders with similar interests. This is a continuation of the first, but don’t just look to other businesses to partner with. Find organizations or groups that already exist in the community and work together to build on existing resources. The people who already live and work in these communities want to make it better, too, and their knowledge and perspective is invaluable as you look to address these kinds of 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?

In our area of the country, there is some good work already happening. ProMedica is an organization affiliated with a large healthcare provider. They have taken a not-for-profit approach to food access and it’s interesting to see how hospitals are working to incorporate food access into their definition of community wellness. Just across town in Indianapolis, we’ve learned a lot from the impact that Cleo’s Bodega has on their neighborhood. There isn’t a restaurant, coffee house, or indoor public space for miles in any direction where people can sit down and just talk. Their site not only provides food access but also enables neighbors to meet each other and rebuild a sense of community. We all have different approaches but the same goal.

Our project is a for-profit model owned by local residents. But the model wouldn’t be possible without our partners working together:

Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana: Goodwill is the most effective mission-based organization I have ever worked with. Their ability to combine wrap-around services to remove obstacles to work, education, and career opportunities is unmatched both in expertise and scale.

Martin University: We approached them with this strange idea of creating a program for operating and working in independent grocery stores, and their immediate answer was, “Yes, let’s do it.”

CICF and The Indianapolis Foundation: Every time we have reached out, their teams have stepped up, been creative and forward-thinking.

Other local organizations: City of Indianapolis, The Neighborhood Food Champions Program, Marion County Reach, LISC, DIP-IN, and the Center of Wellness for Urban Women. Their support of The Wall Street grocery in its infancy made this next step possible.

The governor and the State of Indiana provided support directly in the budget to offset the cost of the project. Their hope is that this model can be replicated across the state.

Michael McFarland and Marcus Williams: None of us would be here today without their brave decision to try something that was next to impossible. To bring food to their neighbors when other grocery stores had abandoned this community.

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?

Money and resources need to get directly into communities and to the people that are already doing good work. To do this, legislators must understand that addressing food deserts is an economic development issue and not a social service effort. Grocery stores should be seen as a powerful incentive for businesses to move into food desert locations and we need to make sure that there aren’t legislative roadblocks to having this effort under the umbrella of the economic development.

We have enough information and data now to know that food is a critical part of community wellness and cohesiveness. It’s time to move towards implementation and away from just studying the problem.

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.

In recent years, trust in media, governments, and traditional organizations has gone down. Interestingly, trust in business and business leaders has been on an upswing. The question, is what will we do with that trust? If we are smart, we will realize that businesses have the resources, expertise, and opportunities to drive societal improvement that is far beyond any other institution, including government.

To drive this type of change and improvement, businesses must understand that we exist in a reciprocal ecosystem made up of, people families, other businesses, not-for-profits, and communities. If any one of these elements is left behind, we will all struggle.

As business leaders, we need to shift our thinking a bit. Too often helping our community gets pushed into a philanthropy bucket. Philanthropy is great, but if we also use our core business opportunities then the change can be exponential. When you open your next manufacturing facility are you going to put it in a place that happens to be next to your existing facility or could you think differently and build it with a community that has seen opportunity leave over the last 30 years?

I am a firm believer that you can do good business and do good in the community at the same time.

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.

Easy. Tom Cruise. There’s just so much going on there. It’s no small task to become the world’s biggest celebrity, movie star, producer, etc. But to do that and be able to pilot sophisticated airplanes (and sometimes ride outside them while they are flying!), jump from buildings, fly helicopters, race hot laps in F1 cars, and film a movie in space? I mean come on, that would be a great lunch.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Learn more about the 38th and Sheridan project which includes a manufacturing facility and the Indy Fresh Market

Cook Medical’s Corporate Social Responsibility report

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