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Social Snacking: Three Companies Add Impact to Your Empty Calories

Three social enterprises are trying to make munching meaningful.

Anyone who's ever absently scarfed down half a bag of chips or sat too close to the office jelly bean bowl can easily see snacks as the enemy. One-third of the calories in an average American diet come from snacks, according to nutritionist Christopher Mohr.

Now imagine if all that munching could be meaningful. Three social enterprises are trying to bridge that gap.

Project 7 drives donations to 11 partner nonprofits through sale of everyday items like gum and mints. For Two Degrees Food, altering the snacking landscape means using a buy one, give one model to donate meals to malnourished kids for every nutrition bar the company sells. HUMAN Healthy Vending—recognizing that sometimes it’s hardest to find the motivation to help yourself—is using vending machines to fight obesity.

Making Doing Good a No-Brainer

The impetus for Tyler Merrick’s company, Project 7, was a question: “What if you could build a brand of products that people were going to buy anyway, and while they bought them, they were helping out somebody else?” Coffee, mints, gum, bottled water, T-shirts—we all buy them, and so they could introduce mission-driven shopping to new customers.

When the company began in 2008, products were branded to support various areas of need, with each sale guaranteeing impact. A tube of “Save the Earth” gum results in a planted tree. A canister of “Feed the Hungry” coffee results in a meal donation.

With the exception of fair-trade, organic coffee, all products are American-made. Water is sourced regionally and sold in biodegradable bottles. Packaging for gum and mints comes from recycled content; T-shirts are made from recycled bottles and organic cotton.

The company has grown steadily and partners in year-long cycles with nonprofits like Invisible Children and Partners In Health. Last year, Project 7 sales resulted in 581,220 meals distributed; 547,046 trees planted; 10,557 malaria treatments; more than 7,101 days of counseling for children of war; clearn water for 14,782 people; 10,560 weeks of schooling for children in Africa; and 5,765 days of shelter, food, education, and health care for orphans.

Todd Bamberg, an independent consultant to consumer packaged goods companies, says mission-based companies hold a growing allure for grocers. “More and more, you’re starting to see these kinds of programs find traction with food retailers,” because shelving products with a purpose also illustrates retailers’ social commitments to customers.

Merrick likens filling your basket with mission-driven products to a humanitarian form of carbon offsetting. “Pull together all those little purchases, add it up, and make a really big impact.”

Have a Snack, Feed a Kid

Globally, 200 million children are hungry. This year, 6 million will die of malnutrition. Will Hauser, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, knew this, and knew that there are simple, World Health Organization–endorsed meals for severe, acute malnutrition. Hauser says, “I felt like I could make a difference and that I wasn’t.”

In early 2010, Hauser partnered with family friend, lawyer, and angel investor Lauren Walters to develop a malnutrition-fighting business called Two Degrees. They would provide Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods to hungry children by way of a nutrition bar and a BOGO model (buy a bar, give a meal), reducing the chasm between a snacking American and a starving kid. “The most important thing for us was to get a really high-quality product that we could offer to customers at a reasonable price point,” Hauser says.

Errol Schweizer, executive global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods, confirms Hauser’s instinct. He sees ethical sourcing, quality, and taste as key—even for mission-based products. “It will build fans, but it won’t necessarily get you on shelves. Really, what gets you on shelves is what’s in the product.”

The bars, developed by former Odwalla head chef Barr Hogen, are packed with fruit, nuts and grains, mostly sourced from small producers. Every bar includes quinoa, chia, and millet—a conscious tie-in to some of the regions where Two Degrees donates meals.

Two Degrees has sold 361,000 bars at Whole Foods stores with the help of 65 campus partners (college students who manage Two Degrees businesses on their campuses), while donating the same number of meals across six countries since the company launched in January 2011. Unlike other food aid—which is often imported—Two Degrees uses local ingredients and labor for meal production. Indian kids’ school lunches are packed with grains and lentils. In Haiti and East Africa, it’s a peanut-based RUTF.

This model provides customers real nutrition, feeds hungry kids, and creates work for their parents. Says Hauser, “I think that more and more this generation wants to be defined by purpose and people don’t want to have this rigid wall between their work and their passions. The natural offshoot is combining them.”

Snacking Ourselves to Health

The USDA estimates that more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts. The rest of us float in and out of settings with limited options—office buildings, manufacturing centers, schools. There’s the vending machine in the basement and the food truck out in the parking lot. You may be able to drive or take a bus to grab something healthier, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to just eat what’s in front of you.

“The way that our society is set up, it’s what I’d call an obesogenic society. It’s much easier to live unhealthily,” says Sean Kelly, co-founder of HUMAN Healthy Vending. “If you don’t make nutrition easy and if you don’t make it incredibly accessible, it’s not going to work.”

Kelly and co-founder Andy Mackensen are trying to build a health food revolution on your pocket change. The company considers itself an anti-obesity enterprise with a vending machine business. Offering a line of energy-efficient vending machines stocked with protein bars, yogurt, smoothies, gluten-free products and other health options, the company has sold 1,100 machines across the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. Last year, HUMAN had $7 million in revenue, with 10 percent of proceeds going to establish student-run healthy vending programs in low-income schools. Schools keep 100 percent of those profits.

From its founding in 2007, HUMAN has focused first on schools, believing that evolving young people's snack habits is one way to effect lifelong change. The kids taught HUMAN a thing or two as well. “When we first got started, I wanted to take the healthiest foods in the world and put them in a machine,” explains Kelly. Kids who lived on a steady diet of Cheetos, McDonald’s, Snickers and sodas weren’t willing to go cold turkey for funny-looking nuts and grains.

At installation, and after surveying customers’ current eating habits, HUMAN encourages new machine owners to stock the healthiest food people will eat. “You have to include some gateway healthy foods,” like Popchips or smoothies. Over time, as tastes change, you can up the ante on nutritional value. “If we’re not actually helping people become healthier, if they’re not making real-world progress and changes, we’re not doing anything.”

And progress, in the form of something as simple as an afternoon snack, shows how social impact only requires the smallest of entry points to begin making a difference.

Each Thursday, Sarah Stankorb examines the way social enterprise is changing business and creating positive impact.

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