Tackling the Biggest Problems in Food—One Bite at a Time

Babson College's Food Sol 'action tank' brings students, corporations and entrepreneurs together to fix the food system.

Prospective food entrepreneurs at Babson College meet with "Bizarre Foods'" Andrew Zimmern for advice on their ideas. Zimmern is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Food Sol, an "action tank" on Babson's campus. (Photo by: Food Sol)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Finding solutions to problems in our world’s food system can seem like a daunting and unmanageable task. How does humanity begin to address healthcare challenges that stem from both scarcity and overconsumption? Or tackle the imbalances in the global food and water supply? What about addressing food safety and transparency for those with severe food allergies, for instance? And what about solutions to the ever-mounting pressures—both economic and regulatory—on family farms?

These questions may make most of our heads hurt, but they’re what wake a group of students, professors and residents at Babson College’s Food Sol “action tank” up in the morning. The Boston-area college is already the country’s top school for entrepreneurship—U.S. News & World Reports has said so 20 years running—so it’s no surprise that the school is now turning some much-needed attention to creating entrepreneurial solutions to our biggest food problems.

It’s doing so, says Food Sol co-founder Rachel Greenberger, the same way we eat: in bite-sized pieces.

“Most of the writing and media and expertise and research coming out around the food system have been very much in aggregate: big problems, big data, global food crises,” she tells TakePart. “That’s not actionable. It’s good to know, it’s important to know, and people who are researching it are valuable, but from an entrepreneurial point of view, if I can’t take the information in the marketplace and act on it, I can’t do anything.”

So in 2011, Greenberger, a Babson alumnus, and Cheryl Kiser—who is executive director of the school’s innovation lab and Greenberger’s faculty adviser—launched Food Sol to spark the imaginations of a new generation of food entrepreneurs to make small actions on big problems. Greenberger says the organization is intentionally “agnostic” in some of the battles that rage within the food world because she believes there’s a seat at the problem-solving table for everyone—from local food activists to big corporations.

“We want people to come to the table as much as they’re able, whether they’re students or entrepreneurs or big food reps, to leave their brands at the door,” she says, “And break down some of these silos and these walls and get to a human to human level. That’s what I think we’re good at.”

For Rob Dalton and Nicole Ledoux, the seed of their business was planted in the weeks and months after Rob experienced a severe nut-allergy reaction to some takeout the couple shared. Their business idea was personal—what can Rob eat that would prevent future trips to the ER?—but it was also meeting a larger need the couple had discovered in their research. Their nut- and gluten-free snack bars would help them as they trained for their half-Ironman Triathlons, but millions of Americans who have food allergies might also benefit. This is how 88 Acres, whose organic snacks should be stocked by retailers this summer, was born.

“We were trying to create a company that focuses on simple ingredients with as little processing as possible,” says Nicole. “When you hold one of our bars in your hand, you can visually see eight of the 10 ingredients in it.”

And the couple continues to attend Community Table, a 90-minute, weekly lunch conversation for Babson food entrepreneurs and others associated with the school to dream and problem-solve together. Rob says the couple’s participation with Food Sol helped reduce risk as 88 Acres was preparing to go to market in a space, the packaged food industry, in which neither co-owner had experience.

“We really didn’t have a strong network within the food industry to help us overcome roadblocks and hurdles that we encountered right away,” he says. “Food Sol was integral in helping surround us with the proper individuals that could really mentor us along the way so we could increase the propensity for our company’s success.”

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