Refreshing how Georgia tackles food insecurity and waste
What problem is your business uniquely positioned to solve? Kashi Sehgal, founder of Retaaza, was exposed to the crisis of food insecurity and waste in Georgia. In turn, she seized the opportunity to connect hyper-local supply with state-wide demand. Today, their successful business model increases demand for Georgia’s number one industry while simultaneously caring for hungry Georgians.
In our interview Kashi Sehgal we refresh our perspective on how business acts as a force for good and the importance of listening to those you are trying to serve.
What’s the problem Retaaza solves?
The name Retaaza means “refresh.” Retaaza was founded to refresh everything about the food system in Georgia and how we think about where our food comes from.
Georgia has a $75 billion dollar agriculture industry, and yet 2 million tons of food is wasted in Georgia every year and 1 in 8 Georgians are hungry. These are not statistics that I could live with.
Retazza is part of the solution by helping farmers find new outlets for the food that they currently can’t sell. We create new markets from local customers so that there is increased demand for local food. For Georgia farmers that don’t have an outlet for the excess food that they’re growing — this beautiful, nutritious food — we find an outlet for them.
Most people don’t have to think about the supply chain that brings their food. With the rise of global connectivity, hyper-local distribution can be lost. Retaaza’s business is about creating an economic, dignified solution to a problem and as a result we’re able to feed people with the local food that’s being grown.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on listening and asking questions, and I think that is a very powerful tool. Ask the right questions at the right time, and you can move mountains.
At Retaaza, we start with the idea that we are not the experts, we are connectors. That’s our role. And so, to really understand what our stakeholders need we’ve got to ask. We can’t just assume.
We started our business based on conversations with the community, conversations with stakeholders all over the food industry, from grocers, distributors to farmers, to nonprofits, to people who are actually hungry. We had to listen and hear the set of issues emerging that we can really tackle. Can we tackle one? Can we tackle all? We can’t be everything to everyone. So what can we do that no one else is really doing because it doesn’t make sense to duplicate effort and work.
Our role emerged for us, and we are able to really help a lot of people across the state.
Listening is fundamental to how we started our business. It’s fundamental to how we build trust with farmers, with nonprofits, and with anybody that we’re working with. We can’t go in saying we know everything. Instead we ask, “What do you need? How can I help you? How can I be of service to you? What are you struggling with what? What makes you happy? What’s going great?” And then just don’t say anything. You have to listen. Just sit back. Take some notes. I make sure that our team always has a notepad with them as a reminder to ask questions, listen and take notes. We come away with pages of notes from every meeting and to me that’s a great sign we’re listening.
Explain your hyper-local markets solution that solves a problem for farmers and hungry Georgians.
People are often surprised to hear that Georgia is one of the most abundant vegetable producing states in the country. Agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry. Farmers should be celebrated and supported as people who are literally feeding our society, and yet most Georgians likely couldn’t name agriculture as our largest industry.
There are hundreds of farms even around the Metro Atlanta area that people often overlook. A farm can be a giant farm of thousands of acres and lots of different crops, and it can also be something in your backyard that you’re farming and providing just for your family and local community. I’ve met many farmers that are farming for themselves, and then they give to their neighborhoods.
Farming can look so very different across the state. We all picture agriculture as giant machinery and large companies, but it started as tiny entrepreneurs all over the country creating micro-businesses to support the local community. And we’ve really gotten away from that.
Retaaza customers, our farmers, are from all over Georgia. We’re working in 22 different counties around the State with a goal be in all 159 counties, working with all the farmers we possibly can, big and small.
If you’re a farmer producing food that you’re unable to sell that impacts your ability to stay in business. At Retaaza we’d like to help ensure farmers can stay in agriculture. So, we buy food every day, reframing and refreshing how people buy food for their families by creating new markets connecting farmers with people who need food.
We find companies interested in purchasing hyper-locally sourced food to support their local communities.
Our very first customer was a rural hospital in South Georgia. Today, we have customers in manufacturing, banking, as well as a variety of different industries and agencies. Our customers buy fresh produce as part of a health and wellness benefit for their customers and employees. As a result, they demonstrate that they care about their wellness, but they also show that they are invested in the larger community eco-system that keeps us all well.
In addition to our paying customers, we ensure that half of the rescued food we buy is donated to local nonprofit organizations serving Georgians in need. We focus a lot of energy getting food to people who really need it, because that’s the other side of the food system we don’t want to forget about.
How do mobile markets break down barriers for solving food-insecurity?
There’s a huge barrier to accessing fresh, health food. So, while we started with our B2B model — really our B2B2C model you can say — we also wanted a way that we could directly reach communities of people who don’t have access to healthy food.
We’re starting a new mobile food market with our first client, Clinch Memorial Hospital in Clinch County. Clinch County has the worst rate of food insecurity in Georgia.
Hand in hand, we launched what we are calling Retaaza Rx, as our mobile pop-up market. We retrofitted a vehicle, creating a mini market essentially on wheels and we’re going to be driving it around. We’ll be taking SNAP and WIC and all the programs that are helpful to people, but at the end of the day it’s also just about allowing them to access this nutritious, fresh, locally sourced food.
As a result, we’re talking to other communities across the state about doing mobile markets. It’s a way to get food directly to people who need it.
The concept of “sustainability” can look very different in different businesses. What’s Retaaza’s definition?
I love this question. We think of sustainability as not just our relationship with the planet, which is what people often think of when they think of sustainability, but also as the sustainability of our local communities, people, relationships, and partners.
We’re trying to think broadly about what it means to have a sustainable eco-system even further than just, “are we going to be here in a 100 years?” Are the farmers going to be here? Do they have a sustainable business? Is it sustainable for people to continue to source their food at gas station convenience stores? What are their health implications long term?
We think in terms of sustainable business models as part of that sustainability solution.
Without a business model, without the dollars generated, the pipeline is gone and our ability to feed the community disappears. Sustainability is that intersection where a strong viable business drives systemic change within industries and benefits our broader eco-system of communities, people and partners.
How can Retaaza help businesses reach their sustainability goals?
We have a program called Corporate Wellness, and the whole point of it is to do something wonderful for your stakeholders by providing them fresh, locally sourced food boxes. It’s a gift that can do good in 4 ways.
- You’re helping your employees and other stakeholders’ health and wellness.
- You’re helping the planet, because by spending money with us we can rescue food that would end up in a landfill.
- You’re going to help somebody in the community eat who struggles to access quality food.
- You are providing for economic mobility and sustainability for our rural areas economic impact.
Is your for-profit model for solving societal problems a trend of an outlier?
I think we’re at the very beginning of this conscious consumerism that is driving an increase in companies focusing on purpose and values. I do think that there are going to be some amazing solutions that come out of what is going on in the start-up community, especially here in Atlanta.
It’s not a traditional business model, it requires rethinking what success looks like. Very simply – I think business can be a tool for good.
I’ve started nonprofits. I love nonprofits. I think they serve a vital role in our communities and our society. But you have to know which tools and levers to pull, and I really wanted to find a sustainable way to help people eat and help our farmers and a for-profit model represented the best solution to reinvest into communities in a very different and creative way.