There’s nothing that I think I can’t do. If I don’t have the information, I just know that I need to get it. And then I’ll know what to do.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis of people having limited reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. As prices rise, this problem will likely become more acute. How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, we are talking to leaders who are helping to address the increasing problem of food insecurity who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve this problem.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Folkes-Johnson.
Nicole Folkes-Johnson, Atlanta Wife, Mom and Fruit & Vegetable Superhero. Her mission is to change Atlanta for the better — one vegetable at a time. She and her husband Donsha founded Eat Right Atlanta in 2011.
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?
My husband and I lost our jobs in the same month — March 2011. He worked for a produce delivery service that went out of business and I worked in advertising. The company he worked for closed on a Friday. The owner didn’t leave a space for Don to park the company van, so he drove it home. On Monday, we received a call from a daycare that he used to deliver to re: their order which had not shown up. We had a van and a severance check and delivered the apples and milk that they were expecting. After we did that. They told us that there were 7 more daycares that would need the same service and we took care of them too! By the end of the week, we were able to pay cash for the owners truck and we were in business! We never looked for this, and are forever grateful that we were guided into this business as it’s the best thing that ever happened to us!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
We delivered to the daycares for awhile and also delivered baskets of food to homes. It was during the recession and people were struggling. We sold a basket of food for $15 that could feed a family for a week. This wasn’t to make money. It was really to help our neighbors. We started to advertise on Facebook and built a website and more people started to buy baskets. And one day, a wonderful woman from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta ordered one. And she liked it so much she took it to work and recommended us for their Wellness Program/Farmers Market that they were trying to develop. After that, we starting hosting Farmers Markets at CHOA (all their locations) and our customer base grew by hundreds. And then Piedmont Healthcare heard about it and hired us to do the same thing. And then WellStar called. And Emory. We had no idea how to do any of this when we started. But we weren’t afraid to try something new, and I think that’s been our saving grace. The fact that we have absolutely no fear, and some things seem absolutely mad — but we’re willing to try anyway!
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?
The tipping point was when we had so much business we were turning away clients. When everyone wanted us to be a part of their company and we had to start selecting where we wanted to be. The biggest lesson is that we really trust ourselves and believe in what we’re doing. Our mission is to go out into the world and do something good every day. And every day, we’re successful with that. We’re helping. We’re making people feel better. We’re teaching communities about healthy eating, and even when there’ no money in a project, we’ll do it, because we know it’s the right thing to do. The money always shows up. But the mission is to do good, and to take care of people.
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?
The first person to thank would be Amanda, from Children’s Healthcare. She saw something in is that we didn’t see in ourselves. The second is Joy. She helped start a program for Breast Cancer patients, where we deliver food to women going through treatment. She was going through treatment and loved how we cared for her. She wanted to do the same for others. Through Joy, we met Tiah, who worked for United health group. She recommended us for a program to help with COVID Testing and Vaccinations. They have been our angels. And Joy has since passed away, so she is a literal angel.
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?
- Stubbornness — I don’t like the word no. As a matter of fact, when someone tells me no, I just assume that they don’t know the correct answer
- Blindness — I literally have no fear. There’s nothing that I think I can’t do. If I don’t have the information, I just know that I need to get it. And then I’ll know what to do
- Optimism — I always believe that it’s going to be ok. Even if the bank account is negative. Even if it seem as if there’s no answer (like when we lost all 43 Hospital Markets due to the pandemic). When the pandemic happened, our entire business went away — for a weekend. By the end of the weekend we had developed a delivery service. We didn’t even have drivers. We just knew that this was what we were going to do. And it ended up being our best year.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother would say “Sleep is for old people and babies. Which one are you?” So I don’t rest much — but I don’t have to. There’s. a lot to do. And if I’m sleeping — I can’t do it.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you describe to our readers how your work is helping to address the challenge of food insecurity?
We live in Georgia, a state that has one of the highest densities of food deserts in the nation. One in 8 Georgians face hunger and one in 7 are children. What I noticed when I moved here was that there were so many communities that didn’t even have a supermarket. And there were so many areas where if you didn’t have a car, you had no access to anything. So what we do — we go into communities that are considered Food deserts. These are areas where it’s over a mile to the nearest supermarket. We bring fresh produce to them. We set up pop-up markets at churches, community centers; schools and hospitals so that people who don’t have ready access to fresh produce can get it. Since the pandemic started, we also deliver to areas where the closest supermarket can be 10–15 miles from people’s homes. And we only charge $5 to deliver. We also have a fund for needy families. Our customers are lovely and donate to that when they can. This allows us to feed those who call and say that they can’t afford food and need us to bring it to them.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Honestly, I’m proud every day, but the best moments are when we meet people who tell us that they were sick and couldn’t leave the house and what we delivered helped them so much; or that they couldn’t afford the food — and we gave it to them anyway. Or that they’re on a fixed budget because they have many mouths to feed, and this allows them to feed their families good food for a reasonable price.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share a few things that can be done to further address the problem of food insecurity?
First thing — Supermarkets that are in this state need to be required to be in places that they don’t necessarily want to be. Yes, it’s great when they’re in a nice neighborhood — where everyone has money and the risks are low. But there are many areas where people don’t have a lot of money. But they have families. They have needs. And a basic need is nutrition. How can we say that we’re being fair when we’re only fair to some? So if a Publix or Kroger open up in a nice neighborhood, they should also provide an option in a not so nice neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be as big — or as nice. But everyone needs something. How can it be ok to provide nothing?
And secondly, there needs to be more of a discussion re: the link between unhealthy eating /poor diet and negative health outcomes. People do not get type 2 diabetes because they want to. Or hypertension. Or stroke, or heart disease. It’s all tied to access. If all you see are fast food places and no place to ever buy a salad, you will live on fast food burgers. And eventually you will be sick. That’s just a fact. Our leaders need to acknowledge that and make steps to improving access to fresh and healthy food.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I wish someone had told me to go to accounting class;
That failure would be a thing…but success would be also;
That there are angels out there, so don’t despair;
That it is possible to work with your spouse and like it;
And to trust my gut. It’s never wrong.
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. :-)
That in order to give our children a fair shot — they need to be healthy. They can’t focus in school if their first meal is a pop tart. And people are unable to do their best work when they’re not well. We all walk around with these conditions (Hypertension, Stroke, Cancer, Diabetes) and a lot of this can be traced back to the food we eat. We can be our best selves when we’re healthy. And because companies want to make the most profit, our food is filled with salt, sugar, preservatives and crazy chemicals. I would like to stop this and make affordable healthy food a normal thing for every community.
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 have 2 people: Michelle Obama because she recognized this issue early on, and really tried to do something about it while she was First Lady and (2) Eric Adams, the new mayor of NYC. Mainly because a cornerstone of his campaign was exactly what we’re talking about here. That people are sick because they don’t have 2 things: access and information. And we as leaders have a responsibility to them to fix that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.