The Story of My Plate: Finding Where Our Food Comes From

While writing about food entrepreneurship and interesting food ventures across India, Sharmila Vaidyanathan found a chance to speak to those people who are reconnecting the urban population with its food source. This is what she found.

In her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow loss of food we love, environmental journalist Simran Sethi talks about her love for food and writes -“But despite this love, I had never thought deeply about where it came from – or where any of my favorite foods came from-beyond a fuzzy notion of “farmers in fields” and “workers in factories.” They were the people I considered in the abstract but did not know.”

Knowing the source of our food often brings out the hibernating braggart in us. This is probably why we never fail to mention which bakery the chocolate cake that we love so much, comes from. The origins tell us more about the food than the food itself. Shortly after I read these lines in Bread, Wine and Chocolate, I spoke to Ishira Mehta and Puneet Jhajharia, the founders of Crop-Connect who are trying to bridge the gap between farmers and urban consumers. The conversation was supposed to be similar to what I have had with entrepreneurs all this while. Except, now I was thinking about something else. This is about how far we are, literally and figuratively from the food and its maker. Along with Ishira and Puneet, I found a few others who are helping us bridge this gap.

Ishira and Puneet’s journey to establish Crop-Connect is a long one – three years, 20 states across India and about 70,000 km long.

Ishira visiting a group of small holder farmers practicing terrace cultivation in Thakurdwara village in Pachhad tehsil. Image courtesy: Crop-Connect

Ishira visiting a group of small holder farmers practicing terrace cultivation in Thakurdwara village in Pachhad tehsil. Image courtesy: Crop-Connect

“At one point we had so many varieties of rice that they would cook a particular type of rice depending on the fish/vegetable that was supposed to be served with it. First three years we spent visiting farmers, consulting, learning and unlearning. Through our own journey, we witnessed how disconnected the urban population had become with its food. We realized that consumers need to build an awareness of the food on their plates. It’s not just about awareness, but also about appreciating what we get”.

Ishira has worked for the International Finance Corporation on projects dealing with sustainable supply chains in the agricultural sector among others. She has also worked with the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

Puneet set up the India office for Grassroots Business Fund (GBF) in 2009. He also has extensive experience working with NGO’s and farmer groups.

Puneet with a group of farmers in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh after a week of kiwi fruit harvesting and packing. Image courtesy: Crop-Connect

Puneet with a group of farmers in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh after a week of kiwi fruit harvesting and packing. Image courtesy: Crop-Connect

“We found that farmers were producing exactly what the urban population was looking for, but the path between them was highly disrupted by middlemen and people who did not connect the dots. There are many organizations and NGO’s that train farmer groups. Training is mostly aimed at capacity building and rarely focuses on understanding the market side of the equation. There was not much being done to understand and improve market linkages.”

So they set up Crop-Connect in 2013 to help farmers understand and operate according to market demands. A significant step in this regard is connecting remote kiwi farms in Northeast India with major urban markets by helping the farmers in capacity building, processing, and transportation. Crop-Connect also provides consultation and training services for farmers.

Original Indian Table, the brand under Crop-Connect was launched in August 2015. Their curated boxes consist of carefully picked ingredients and products from different farms, across the country. For e.g., their diabetic box consists of a rice variety from Karnataka, a millet variety from Uttarakhand and a Jamun powder, which is made by tribal farmers in Jharkhand. Apart from these boxes they also have retail products like black rice, infused Himalayan rock salts, among others, which they sell through online portals (products can be purchased through their website and through Original Indian Table aims to bring traditional knowledge of our farmers to the forefront. The boxes come with brochures that have product details, nutritional information, recipes, information on how they must be eaten and information about the farmer.

Crop-Connect is now also looking at partnering with chefs and restaurants, to showcase traditional foods and regional alternatives that people have long forgotten.

The sugar control box. Image courtesy: Crop-Connect

The sugar control box. Image courtesy: Crop-Connect

Vishalakshi Padmanabhan is a Chartered Accountant by qualification and a farmer by passion. She started “Buffalo Back” in 2012 to share with the urban population of Bangalore the products from her farm. She entered the world of farming when she bought a barren piece of land and spent three years reviving it.

“I met many farmers during that time and travelled a lot. Experienced farmers gave me advice on how I should first start with building resources for the land. They gave me tips on water harvesting, growing windbreaks and on soil preservation. I read up a lot on sustainable farming practices. After 3 years of working on the land, I was able to actually grow food and call it a farm.”

Vishalakshi’s encounters with many farmers made her aware of the fact that the younger generations of these farming families were slowly moving away from the trade, and working in the city as drivers or as domestic help. Manjula, who runs the Buffalo Back store grew up in a family of farmers and moved to the city post her marriage. “She was working as a domestic help in the city when I met her. She often spoke about her farm and about how she was involved in all the activities. That is when I realized that if Manjula and others like her cannot go back to their respective farms for various reasons, they would still like to have that connect with farming.”

Vishalakshi trained Manjula in using computers, running the store, and handling customer queries. Vishalakshi is now working on establishing an enterprise where people like Manjula can still be a part of the farming community. Buffalo Back today has two branches and 80% of what they sell comes from small farmers, giving them direct market access. They focus predominantly on organically grown produce, but as Vishalakshi states, many of these farmers have been practising organic farming since the beginning of their farming days.

Buffalo Back’s Facebook page is filled with information and updates about their products, farming experiments and even simple recipes. Through the newsletters she writes, Vishalakshi gives people a behind the curtain view of how “Buffalo Back” comes up with its products and shares her travel stories. They also have cooking classes from time to time. “To completely understand the food source and the difficulties in bringing food to the plate, one must have a fundamental interest in food. ”

Arun Kaulige, founder of Kaulige Foods also believes in this philosophy of getting people interested in food. “My dream is to reinvent and adapt millets, to suit the modern palate. Current efforts are towards reviving and popularizing millets via the social enterprise Kaulige Foods.”

An engineer by qualification with over a decade of experience in the steel industry, Arun’s shift to the world of millets was inspired by, a venture founded by Dinesh Kumar, which is actively trying to improve the millet value chain.

Kaulige foods workshop. Image courtesy: Kaulige Foods

Kaulige foods workshop. Image courtesy: Kaulige Foods

“Part of what I am trying to do at the farmer end is helping them in holding on to millets, by procuring seeds, educating farmers about the benefits of growing millets and helping them in processing millets. We also try and encourage collaborative efforts between several small farms. We collect the yield from these farms and find suitable markets.” A large part of Arun’s work is conducting workshops in corporate offices and apartment complexes. These workshops demonstrate using millets in simple everyday recipes, as well as show the participants what millet seeds and the final products look like.

“Workshops are a great way to connect with the urban population. There are some participants who join us in the cooking process, some who share recipes that their grandparents would make, and some who just want to see how easy it is to incorporate millets into their diets.” Arun adds that these workshops often bring about an element of nostalgia and many stories are shared.

Arshiya Bose, founder of Black Baza Coffee has a unique reason to let the urban population know which farm their coffee comes from.

Bees Pollinate Coffee Flowers- Image Courtesy: Black Baza Coffee

Bees Pollinate Coffee Flowers- Image Courtesy: Black Baza Coffee

By establishing farm connections through her venture, she encourages small and medium coffee farmers to follow conservation-friendly practices of growing coffee. The venture monitors not just coffee sales, but also the impact of these farming practices on biodiversity. While researching for her Ph.D., wherein she was looking into “incentive based conservation models”, Arshiya realized that setting up a social enterprise and giving better market access could be one of the ways to help farmers follow shade farming of coffee. This would, in turn, make them commit to planting more trees, conserving natural water bodies, and factoring in biodiversity while growing great coffee.

Black Baza Coffee encourages consumers to write back to the farmers by providing postcards. Arshiya believes that this will help the farmers realize that their efforts are being appreciated by someone who has never had the opportunity to visit their farms.

Image Courtesy: Balck Baza Coffee

Image Courtesy: Balck Baza Coffee

Consumers are also able to trace their cups back to the source. Through their Facebook page and blog posts, Black Baza Coffee gives its followers a sneak peak of lush green coffee farms, related processes, and some interesting coffee tips.

Towards the end of her Ted Talk “We need to feed the whole world”, food and agriculture expert Dr. Louise Fresco asks, “When was the last time you went to a farm and talked to a farmer?”. This question stayed with me for a while. Despite spending most of my days writing about food entrepreneurs I have never once made an effort to visit a farm or write about a farmer. Isn’t this the most fundamental form of food entrepreneurship? To look at food from its source is to look at food as food, beyond brands, beyond packets on the shelves and beyond add-ons in our virtual cart. To look at food from its source is to truly understand the terminologies like organic, sustainable, “farm to the plate” that we so conveniently use to describe our food choices. To look at food from its source is to be truly grateful for what we get and to understand that we are all in this together.

As Shankary Krishnamoorthy writes in her blog post “Crop to Cup” about coffee, which probably resonates for all things food – “A good cup of coffee is more than just a brand! It’s tied to the very essence of how we live and let live and how interconnected we are to everything around us for our survival and health.”

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