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Food Deserts: Diego Norris of gimMe Health Foods On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

Offer the right incentives to promote the production of healthy, wholesome foods at scale.

Promote and protect local sources of food production.

Educate consumers about the benefits of healthy eating.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Diego Norris.

Diego Norris is the Chief Marketing Officer at gimMe Health Foods Inc., the #1 seaweed snack brand. He has traditional CPG training and over two decades of experience in building and managing both large and small businesses. He has a demonstrated track record of successfully leading teams in the development and execution of breakthrough marketing plans that combine traditional levers with grassroots marketing and digital / social media.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve had the pleasure of working in food marketing for over 25 years. I chose this career path because of my passion and love of food, and because it allows me to leverage my creative and analytical skills. I joined gimMe almost a year ago because I was inspired by the company’s mission to turn seaweed, the most delicious, nutritious, and environmentally-sustainable vegetable in the world, into an absolute snacking sensation.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve been fortunate to have been part of many interesting stories during my career, but one definitely stands out to me. While I worked at Red Bull, I had the chance to meet Red Bull athletes from lots of different disciplines. On one occasion, I got to meet and hang out with Felix Baumgardner. In case his name doesn’t ring a bell, he is the guy who jumped from the stratosphere and broke the sound barrier during free-fall. Truly an inspirational guy.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Every single person has what I call a “super power” — something they do better than anyone else. It could be something as simple as remembering facts, being calm under pressure, or having a creative approach when problem solving. My tipping point was when I became aware of my own “super power” and started leveraging it. Once I understood my unique abilities, I was able to advance my craft; to go off script and put my own spin on things. So my lesson to share is this: get to know yourself and seek opportunities that are tailored to your unique abilities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been very fortunate to have had the chance to work with some amazing leaders over the years. Many names come to mind, but the two most impactful people in my professional life have been Suzanne Ginestro (CMO, Califia) and Todd Putman (CGO, Bolthouse Farms).

  • Suzanne and I go back many years — I often joke that she hired me three separate times! First at Red Bull, then at Pinkberry, and most recently at Bolthouse Farms. In reality, we enjoyed working together so much that she brought me along as she took on bigger and more challenging roles. Working for Suzanne has been incredibly rewarding — she’s an amazing leader. It’s safe to say I would not be where I am if it hadn’t been for her.
  • Todd is another person who has had an immense impact in my professional life. I worked for Todd while at Bolthouse Farms and really enjoyed his style. There are very few people who can connect with others the way Todd can. He’s an amazing communicator and a highly charismatic leader.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I’ve got a big framed poster at home that says “Work Smart, Work Hard & Be Nice to People.” It’s a somewhat overused phrase that has become sort of a personal mission statement — I try to live by it every day. Work smart: take time to understand the problem before jumping into action. Work hard: put in the hours needed to deliver great outcomes — no shortcuts. And finally, be nice to people: Treat everyone with kindness and respect — especially those who are on the “front lines”.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Ed Carolan, the former President of Campbell Fresh and an avid reader, once introduced me to a speech by Theodore Roosevelt commonly known as “The Man in the Arena” speech. My favorite excerpt goes:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Like Ed, I take a lot of pride in being “in the arena” with my team. There’s no progress without struggle, so you’ve got to get off the sidelines and into the field. It’s amazing how fast you can progress once you stop thinking about struggle and defeat as horrible outcomes to be avoided, but rather think of them as necessary stepping stones toward the achievement of a higher objective.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

A Food desert is an area where people have limited access to affordable, healthy, and nutritious food options, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. In these areas the only sources of affordable food are often highly-processed foods that do not promote a healthy lifestyle, such as fast food. For people who live in these areas, eating healthy can become a bit of an uphill battle.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

Among other things, food deserts can create bad eating habits, sometimes from a very early age. Over time, these bad habits can turn into serious health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Economists often cite higher healthcare costs and loss of productivity as common secondary and tertiary societal costs. The most visible and impactful costs, however, are human: loss of mobility, lost time with loved ones, and shorter lifespans. The sad part is that most of these issues are avoidable.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

One of the main contributing factors of this crisis has been the industrialization of the food system. Before that, people relied on local food sources to meet their dietary needs. The industrialization of the food system forced many local businesses to close shop. Over time, a lot of the foods we eat became less wholesome in order to make them more affordable or to extend their shelf life. Another contributing factor to this crisis has been the erosion of the middle class. Today, it’s not uncommon for both parents in a household to hold more than one job each. Sometimes, even that is not enough. That leaves little time and little money for cooking wholesome meals.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

  • It is projected that there will be almost 10B people on Earth by the year 2050. In order to feed everyone, we are going to need to increase calorie production by ~60%. The problem is that the food system as we know it is already unsustainable — it cannot be scaled any further. Solving this crisis is going to require new ideas and innovative approaches.
  • The answer, I believe, lies in our oceans. Sea veggies such as seaweed, are nothing short of miraculous. Gram for gram they are among the most nutrient-dense vegetables on Earth. Better yet, they require no fresh water, land, or chemicals to grow. In fact, when grown responsibly they can even have a net positive impact on the environment. Sea veggies are the ultimate regenerative crop.
  • One of the initiatives I’m most proud of is our Healthy Kids program. It’s estimated that ~30% of kids don’t get a single serving of veggies a day! Knowing that each 10g pack of our seaweed snacks delivers a full serving of vegetables, we are in a unique position to help solve this issue. Each year, our founders Annie Chun and Steve Broad donate hundreds of thousands of servings of vegetables to kids in need. Last year alone we donated over 200,000 servings of veggies to local food banks.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been following the progress of people I once managed or worked with. Many have continued to grow and are now highly capable professionals, tackling incredibly challenging roles or working on highly visible brands. The interesting thing is that some of the greatest success stories came from people who were considered to be “risky” hires at the time — people who maybe didn’t have the “right” company name or degree on their resumes but showed a lot of potential.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Showing up is half the battle. Here’s what I propose for the other half:

1) Offer the right incentives to promote the production of healthy, wholesome foods at scale.

2) Promote and protect local sources of food production.

3) Capture the true economic, societal, and environmental costs involved in the production and consumption of highly processed, unhealthy foods.

4) Educate consumers about the benefits of healthy eating.

5) Fund the development of food-tech and ag-tech businesses that are leveraging technology to revolutionize the food system.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse Farms, has made it his life mission to democratize fresh and refrigerated foods. The company’s mission is to bring healthy and nutritious food to the American table by giving back to employees, local communities, and the nation. I had the pleasure of working for Jeff and found him to be a truly inspirational and impactful leader. He’s the kind of change agent we so desperately need right now.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

For starters, we need food pricing to capture the true economic, societal, and environmental costs involved in its production and consumption. Failing to capture these costs does not actually make those costs disappear, it merely transfers them, often at exponential rates. This makes harmful foods appear cheaper than they actually are which actually incentivizes their consumption. You could almost think of it like a subsidy on harmful foods. Next, I’d love to see some additional incentives in place for wholesome, sustainable food production. These types of actions could significantly accelerate the transformation of our food system.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Without a doubt, it would be to bring sea veggies into the spotlight and educate people about the wonders of these often overlooked greens. Gram for gram, seaweed delivers more calcium than milk, more protein than eggs, more vitamin C than oranges, more vitamin A than carrots, and more iron than spinach. How’s that for a superfood! Sea veggies are also incredibly sustainable. They are a zero-input food that grows incredibly fast and has a net positive impact on the environment. They are also highly beneficial to the economies of coastal communities, as they are often harvested during crab and lobster off-season.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would love to spend some time with Sir Richard Branson — preferably at Necker Island ☺. I hear he loves to kitesurf, which is also a passion of mine. In all seriousness though, in order to re-invent the food system, we’re going to need the best and brightest minds. People who aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues. Sir Richard Branson would be at the top of my list.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow my work at gimMe Foods via Instagram or via LinkedIn

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success. Thank you so much!

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Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey

Entrepreneur | Investor | Connector | Inventor