Q & A with Lauren Bush & Ellen Gustafson of FEED
You know those FEED bags you see everywhere? In addition to being eco-friendly (they're made from 100% organic cotton), they're also made with a mission -- and a good one. Lauren Bush and Ellen Gustafson hope that FEED gives people one simple thing to do, like purchase a bag, and in turn, help feed children across the globe, and in a way that actually produces results.
Lauren and Ellen spoke with me about the early days of starting a socially conscious company, and shared some of their very insightful observations on the eerie similarities between malnutrition and obesity abroad and at home, their own personal eating philosophies, and more.
MBG: How did FEED begin?
Lauren: The idea for FEED started when I was studying abroad in Australia and working as a student spokesperson with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). What I saw out in the field was that the school feeding program seemed to be working. The program provides kids a nutrient-packed lunch in school, which often times is the only meal that child will get that day. So in 2004, we designed the FEED 1 bag, so that each consumer, by purchasing one bag, would feed one child in school for one year. I came back to the US, had the idea for the bag and had met Ellen, as she was working at the WFP and from then we decided to launch FEED Projects the company in 2007.
What have you learned since you launched FEED?
Ellen: We really didn’t know what social entrepreneurship was when we first started. I remember back in the summer of 2006, we began to see socially-focused companies start to crop up --- a lot of other people were starting to think about making more eco-friendly products, with a give-back element. We know now we were a part of a bigger movement for consumer products that have a deeper meaning
Malnourishment is a problem yet so is obesity -- what’s wrong with the food system?
Ellen: There was a sense five to six years ago that these were two wildly different issues. I have found that no matter where you are in the world, it’s very hard to eat healthy. When we go to Sub-Saharan Africa, where people are truly suffering from lack of food, you still find Coca-Cola. When we come home to America and go to the south Bronx or another area where the poor are suffering, you’ll still find Coca-Cola there. But in neither place do you find a great variety of nutritious food. In both situations, the same problem exists, but the malnutrition presents itself in two different ways.
World hunger – what can one person do to help?
Lauren: That is the frustration that inspired the creation of FEED -- giving someone one simple thing they can do to help contribute, like buying a bag. World hunger can be this far away and daunting issue, and there are so many different factors that cause hunger to exist. If it were easy to solve, it would be figured out by now. Our approach is finding the programs within organizations such as the School Feeding Program (much like the Micronutrient Powder that UNICEF is getting out) that are strategic ways to address hunger and malnutrition. I don’t think we’ll pretend that we at FEED can end world hunger, but we’re offering a solution for people to learn about these issues and help in the solution.
What are your personal eating philosophies?
Lauren: I’ve been a vegetarian since I was four. It wasn’t a highly intellectualized decision for me at the age -- it was just an instinctual feeling that I couldn’t eat what was living. I eat cheese and milk, but have never eaten fish or meat or anything that has a face. Now that I’m older and I’ve read so much more about health and food, I do think that eating vegetarian can be a healthier option that is also better for the world.
Ellen: For me, taking the global perspective, it takes more calories to produce meat for our meat-heavy western diet then you get calories out – I think the ratio is 15:1. So you could say that the Western diet’s massive focus on meat is a bit of a drain on the food system. For me, personally, it’s about the way meat is produced. I’ve been a pretty exclusive organic eater for a long time, because of both food values and nutrition. I do eat some pastured meat, maybe 3 times a month, and would call myself a “mostly-organic flexitarian”. The reality is we shouldn’t eat as much as we do. If you focus on getting your nutrients for the day, then you’re going to fill yourself up with good stuff.
Speaking of food, any favorites in NY?
Ellen: I love Blue Hill. I think it fits my food values pretty well. I like Colicchio and Sons and Craft, too, because they offer grass-fed meat!
Lauren: We always go to the Chelsea market as well, which is also full with lots of local, healthy, and organic options.
You’re both on the road a lot – are there any must-have healthy foods or skin care products that you bring with you?
Lauren: When we travel to exotic places, I’ll bring tons of Clif bars. One of my personal favorite skin care brands is Jurlique so I’ll always bring that as well.
Ellen: We’re both natural product junkies. I actually recently discovered some of Clarin’s products that are organic and eco-friendly.
What are you currently working on? Where would you like to be in five years?
Lauren: Almost every month we have a new product. And our latest bag is the FEED Trick or Treat Bag for UNICEF, which HSN is selling exclusively. Its to benefit UNICEF and in celebration of their 60th anniversary of the Trick or Treat for UNICEF campaign. We’re the first bag collaboration so we’re really excited about it.
In five years? Well, I think we’re becoming a trusted brand, and FEED gives people an easy, bite-sized way to give back and make a difference through purchasing our products. We’re known for our bags, but we also have cute teddy bears and bracelets, and have just come out with t-shirts. As we grow, we’ll look to expand our brand and obviously be authentic to our mission and the organizations we support.
Ellen: The key to our brand is our values. We try to be as eco-friendly as possible with our products – for example, our cotton is organic, and we try to make sure our products are “good” and in-line with our mission of giving back. We want to keep making awesome products all around the world that include meaningful donations to help FEED the world better!
For more about Lauren, Ellen, and FEED: