Every once in a while I come across a person who knocks my socks off with their plan for a better world. These meetings are rare, so when they happen I’m usually left in speechless awe.
I had such an experience the other day when talking with Ellen Gustafson, a visionary and go-getter of the highest order. At the age of 31, she’s already launched one company and one non-profit—both with social missions and both wildly successful. Her cause: The global food crisis.
The first was FEED Projects, a company she co-founded in 2007 with Lauren Bush (model and niece to former President George W. Bush), with the mission to sell burlap/cotton bags and donate profits to the UN World Food Program to help feed children in developing countries. FEED is still going strong and, at press time, more than 62 million meals had been provided by funds raised.
The second was 30 Project, a non-profit she launched in mid-2010 to help change the world conversation around food. While this idea may seem a bit abstract, Gustafson is quick to explain. A few years back, she started reading books on food systems and realized that 1980 stuck out as a year where both obesity rates and starvation rates began to skyrocket. She started to wonder what happened in 1980 that led to our problems with food today?
“I found that that was the time when genetically modified crops became patentable, high fructose corn syrup became readily available, big agriculture companies took over small farms, and got to thinking that the past 30 years didn’t work well in the world of food, so we should change what happens in the next 30 years,” Gustafson says.
She believes change is possible by opening a dialogue between food industry movers and shakers, so she developed 30 Project dinners. These dinners, which occur in cities across the country, gather together farmers, grocery store chain managers, and others in the food industry to talk about how to change food systems for a better future.
“In the beginning of each dinner, we ask everyone to give a toast or speech about what their vision is for a better food system 30 years from now,” Gustafson says.
The events have been a huge hit. At one dinner in Iowa, a local farmer met a chief nutritionist at a major grocery store chain. They made a connection and now the chain is planning to sell more locally grown food, she says.
Gustafson hopes the dinners will make a big impact on increasing the availability of affordable healthy food (thereby decreasing obesity), and opening the conversation on how to change food systems to solve hunger problems worldwide.
“In the cases of both hunger and obesity, there is a tendency to point a finger at the eater themselves, but I don’t think that is right—there are bigger system problems causing these issues,” she says.
Looking ahead, Gustafson says 30 Project will soon launch international events as well as a consumer piece where everyone will have the ability to hold 30 Project-esque dinners.
“In October we are going to get people to rethink dinner and start talking about how to make changes in their own homes and communities—to realize those changes do, affect the broader world around us,” she says.
Gustafson offers two pieces of advice for budding social entrepreneurs:
1. Educate yourself
“Know your stuff and be the smartest person in the room on your issue. You can go up against any big company if you put in the extra work,” she says.
2. Bring extreme passion
“It is the passion for the issue that will keep you going,” she says.