For our third installment of our webinar series For the Health: A Conversation on Race and Food Allergies, we spoke with leaders in the food allergy industry about institutional change. One of the panelists was Nicole Ledoux, founder of 88 Acres.
88 Acres makes granola, cereal bars, salad dressings, and seed butters free-from the Top 9 allergens. Nicole Ledoux is actively working to not only make school lunches more safe for food allergy kids, but also make healthy and delicious food more accessible for all school children. This seemingly small company is making big change in partner schools in educating students about food and where it comes from.
You can listen to the full conversation here or read the transcript below to find out how 88 Acres is making a difference in schools across the United States.
Karen Palmer (moderator): One of the things that got you all on the radar, at 88 Acres, of food allergy consumers is not just the delicious products (seed-based granola bars, butters) but the fact that you have taken a really interesting step in developing your market to include schools. It is a big thing to step into the world of school lunch programs and local, regional, and federal health regulations. It is really big for a small company like [88 Acres]. Why did you decide to take that step?
Nicole Ledoux (founder of 88 Acres): Thank you so much for including us in this very important conversation. I’m thrilled to be here, so thanks for having me.
We really wanted to start working with schools because we started to hear from a lot of our consumers this issue about access. One of our first channel partners was Whole Foods. They have been an amazing partner. When you walk into the store, there are people who work at the store who are helping to educate consumers on all kinds of different food issues. They have worked really hard to be an advocate for certain food issues. But we realized during our food marketing strategy that we were not reaching enough consumers who needed our product. And schools were an area that we thought we could really make an impact.
I live with someone who has food allergies. My husband is deathly allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. We have a 4 and a half year old son who is deathly allergic to tree nuts and sesame. Being a mom and sending a child into school every day, that is where we really thought we could make an impact.
But the conversation with schools is that this is not just a solution for the children who might have an allergy, this is a solution for your entire community. And it is really about the care that goes into the manufacturing of the foods, the care that goes into the supply chain, bringing the highest quality ingredients, and bringing the transparency and education around the ingredients in the food into the food community.
The schools that we have been able to partner with really focus on the education around “we should be looking at the ingredient labels and understanding exactly what is going into our bodies.” [And we are] bringing that conversation all the way back to the field. We use seeds as our number 1 protein source. Doing things like planting gardens with school children, and seeing that a-ha moment of planting a pumpkin in the springtime, harvesting it in the fall, cracking that open and being able to use that ingredient and understand where it comes from. We feel that affecting that change and food awareness at an early age really sets people up for healthier eating habits later in life. The ability to affect change in schools really maximized the impact across consumers.
Karen Palmer: That is a wonderful step because for many people who are food allergy consumers, your kids are the gateway into this market. If you are creating something that is an inclusive product, it also means that those kids are not getting singled out in the classroom as the kid who has to eat the different thing.
Everyone has the same food and can enjoy it in the same way.
Getting to that point though, kids are notoriously picky consumers. How did you manage to make what some people might see as a niche product, the kind of thing you can only get at Whole Foods, and might look a bit exotic that what they are usually seeing, how did you make that appealing to kids and also satisfy the really specific requirements of the federal food program?
Nicole Ledoux: We spend a lot of time doing things like taste testing and gathering feedback. Kids are very honest about what they like and what they don’t like. For example, we make a pumpkin seed butter; it’s bright green because pumpkin seeds are green when they are taken out of their shell. In the way that we talk about foods, almost in a Green Eggs and Ham type of way, we found that the more involved kids can be in their food decisions (why something might be green or why something tastes the way that it does) the more excited they get.
We were literally in school making pumpkin seed butter and jelly sandwiches, using pumpkin seed butter to make a salad dressing, and gathering feedback and tweaking it. We did the same thing with our bars.
First and foremost, things have to taste good to get the kids behind it.
I might think that buckwheat is the greatest ingredient in the world, but if kids aren’t going to eat it then it doesn’t matter if we are bringing that to the table for them. [We pair that with] trying to make the education around different ingredients fun and interactive. When we were sampling our bars, we had these little cards with seed fun facts on them. [For example] we learned that millet is considered a grain, but it is botanically a seed. These were almost like trivia questions for them. It got them involved in the conversation and they got excited about these ingredients. I think that when they have a voice, the levels of participation in schools are higher.