As the pandemic continues to make its way through communities across the US, more environmentalists are beginning to make the connection between public health and the way we source our food globally. Could more people be turning to plants and organic foods after seeing the effects of this crisis? The argument is certainly becoming more compelling.
“I think the time is right for all of us to start thinking about this. The American diet hasn’t been healthy for years. We know that, says Stephen Williamson, founder and CEO of the Forager Project, a California-based creamery (that makes all their milks, yogurts, sour creams, and more out of plants, not cows milk).
Williamson has some experience in the food world. He was the Chairman and CEO at Odwalla in the 1990s; in 2001, it was sold to Coca-Cola. Although Odwalla did make organic juices, he notes, they failed to make them money. So as he developed Forager, he says, “My thought was let’s just go all in — not just organic but also plant-based.”
The Forager Project has not taken a linear path. The company first focused on vegetable juices, leaning on Williamson’s background and expertise. Dismayed but the sugary options in the market, he wanted to transform that category: “It wasn’t really healthy juices, but mostly apple juice. So we wanted to put all our ingredients on the front of the bottle, and not even have a brand name. It was about the ingredients.”
But a few years into the startup’s trajectory, they moved away from juices to non-dairy products: a pricing war-of-sorts in the juice section led them to selling bigger bottles of nut-milks, primarily cashew-based.
Williamson, who lives in northern California and says he’s always had a vegetable patch in his backyard, is befuddled by the modern food system: “Industrial agriculture has always been about controlling nature, getting the most out of nature. Organic agriculture is really much a nature-led model. It’s kind of ridiculous that you should have to be certified organic in the US and not the other way. I think you should have to certified or required to state that you’re putting toxic chemicals on crops, and petrochemical-based fertilizers in your soil.”
As the company ventured deeper into nut-milks, it sought to source their primary ingredient—the cashew— from overseas, a contentious issue, Williamson acknowledges: “I like to eat my spinach from down the street. But maybe it’s not a good idea to grow cashews here.”
Pointing to the almond growers in California, he says that some of the farming practices, such as heavy irrigation and spraying of pesticide and insecticides, is not eco- or bee-friendly, arguing that a case can be made for using international ingredients if the farming practices are more regenerative. Forager’s cashews come mostly from southeast Asia where monsoon rains can irrigate crops and cashew trees are abundant, he says. Aside from concentrating on an organic supply chain, they had to deliver on taste, he notes. “This yogurt, for example, has to taste just as good as a dairy yogurt.”
And that’s a challenge they’re still fine-tuning as a plant-based creamery. Coconut, though a popular ingredient in many plant-based foods, he says, can be “polarizing.” While it still makes an appearance in the Forager selection, coconut is not the primary ingredient always.
Plus, Williamson wants to make their products without gums, another common ingredient in plant-based dairy. Though the brand has minimalist, modern styling, the core, he says is a like an “old-fashioned creamery. Just like the ones that made butter, milk, yogurt traditionally. But we’re just doing it with different ingredients.”
All of this does cost a pretty pen, he says. In fact, “principles will cost you money—at least in the short run, for sure. But in the long run, you’re better off for it. In an age when values seem to be forgotten, I get comfort in some straightforward values.”
Those values resonated with Danone, one of the largest B Corps in the world currently. Last year, Manifesto Ventures, Danone’s investing arm, took a minority investment in the Forager Project, which had largely been funded by Williamson with the support of a few friends, he says. “I had gone as far as I could go financially. So I spent years talking to different partner. This was a deal years in the making.”
That investment, he hopes, will help him expand Forager’s footprint in the consumer market. “There’s not been a lot of great food companies in America that have been built, at scale, on good ingredients and health — not just salt, fat, sugar, and caffeine. The time to do that is now.”
Forager, he admits, is not perfect. “We still use plastic bottles. We’re schmucks. That has to change. But as a teeny company, how am I going to lead the revolution on this? That’s where Danone can help us. Help us get out, and get yourself out of plastic,” he pleas.
Williamson is also acutely aware of price, which is a multi-pronged conversation: better ingredients do cost more, he emphasizes. But yes, the product does need to be wallet-friendly, as well, he acknowledges.
“I’ve not had a chance to be mainstream yet. I’ve had to build the foundation, get people to follow along, and trying to get people to eat more plants. It’s just the beginning really.”