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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Back to the Roots, NYC Schools Take 'Undo Food' Movement One Step Further

A recent move by the New York City public school system signals a major win for small food companies and champions of better nutrition. The pressure to provide wholesome, nutritious foods is considerable for public schools across the U.S. following the introduction of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, and many rely on products from large companies such as Kellogg, Post Foods and General Mills, which are both affordable and accessible, for their breakfast programs.

But recently, when the Kellogg Company discontinued two cereals that New York City schools served on their breakfast menus, the schools found themselves with a void to fill — and promptly seized the opportunity to try something different.

Back to the Roots was that something different. Though miniscule in comparison to food industry giants such as Kellogg, the California startup — which last summer got a $10-million funding boost from investors — offers a lineup of organic cereals with half as much sugar as conventional brands and no preservatives or added vitamins. The cereals’ nutritional profiles and organic ingredients made them the ideal candidates for New York City’s free breakfast program, which currently serves 254,000 students on average. Administrators weren’t the only ones keen about the new addition —after a lengthy test period, students gave the brand’s Purple Corn Flakes their seal of approval.

Sustainable Brands spoke with Back to the Roots co-founder Nikhil Arora about what this new deal means for the company and the challenges that lie ahead.

SB: Big congrats on this latest news! What are your next steps? Are you in talks with any other school districts?

Nikhil Arora: Yes, we're in talks with other districts — but what's most exciting is that the kids are leading it — through their taste tests, and the choices they are making each morning to pick up a lower-sugar, 100% whole grain, organic cereal. Day by day, the kids in NYC have been voting with their spoons and their smiles, and we're excited to take all those lessons to other districts now. And since NYC is such a large, diverse district, we feel we can take this case study of an organic, less sugar, 100% whole grain cereal that kids are loving to all the other districts.

SB: How much will this increase your production? In your recent New York Times interview, you mentioned trouble finding enough purple corn to meet demand — do you see this continuing, or any other potential issues meeting demand?

NA: It's definitely had a big impact on production, and early on, matching demand forecasts with production was tough because we had never sold in schools, and didn't have a good sense of what that volume/velocity looked like. But what's exciting from an agriculture perspective is the impact this can have on our farmers as well. At Back to the Roots, we are incredibly passionate and put a huge emphasis on working directly with our farmers. With NYC Schools and other districts to come, it lets us start contracting for more organic acreage with our farmers. Also, as much as we want to know where our food comes from, farmers want to know where their food goes! And it's been really inspiring to see the shared enthusiasm from our farmers to know that all their purple corn and biodynamic wheat is ending up in cafeterias across the country now to feed kids! From a sustainability perspective, as well, a big point that hasn't been talked about is that one of our cereals — the first DEMETER BIODYNAMIC cereal in the nation (all using regenerative agriculture) is now being served in NYC. The fact that NYC Public Schools — the largest school district — has moved to a certified biodynamic/regenerative cereal is really inspiring to us. And the fact that the kids chose it after taste tests is even more exciting because it's real food — real cinnamon, not cinnamon flavor; real 100% stoneground, biodynamic wheat, not refined bleached flour.

SB: Are you developing any new products — new cereal flavors or something completely different?

NA: We are working on new products — new cereal SKUs to continue bringing more options to kids in school, and also have a new snack line that we're announcing at Expo West for the first time — it's up for Best New Organic Product! We are also expanding our ready-to-grow selection with the launch of Organic Self-Watering Chilli Pepper and Shishito Pepper planters.

Back to the Roots has come a long way since the introduction of its very first Mushroom Mini Farm. Receiving recognition and support from the country’s largest school system marks a monumental step forward for the company, as well as other small sustainable and nutritious food companies who are hoping to infiltrate the market.

Most interesting, however, is the reception from students, whose enthusiasm for these new, healthier options is the true measure of success. Back to the Roots is breaking down the “what kids will eat” myth, which is a win for communities and small businesses alike.


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