By Sweetness: The Just Food Co. Founder Will H. Hansen
"In a bitter world, it’s time for Sweetness.”
At age 9, in the anthology, "What Matters to Me," I wrote, “These are some of my favorite foods: pizza, ravioli, ice cream, and doughnuts. You need food to survive longer. Food is a person’s main energy source. Finally, people can’t last more than a week without food… I would rather die than lose my family, friends, and food.” To have food that I liked available to me was among few other things of life or death importance. A year later, I was in a dark place mentally and had also become overweight. Pulling out of a period of deep depression, investing myself in nutrition and exercise lit a passion to channel my energy into.
I had to understand how we could see widespread obesity, a never-ending stream of media weight loss, and widespread food insecurity. Why were there such gaps between even the public school lunch programs of my urban schools vs. surrounding suburban schools? First, through high school research papers, I found nutrition inequities, price manipulation from corn and sugar subsidies, gaps in physical activity opportunities, junk food ads targeting minority kids' shows, and more. One quote that's stuck with me is, “does your zip code matter more than your genetic code?”
Then, becoming a certified personal trainer at age 18 was both frustrating and empowering. Frustrating because no matter how many squats or pushups we could do together, and no matter how motivated a client was, it was a constant uphill battle to have nutritious food that they had the time to prepare, could have accessible on the go, actually looked forward to eating, and that fit within their life, rather than feeling like a full upheaval of their family habits, or cultural and food preferences. Empowering because of how many clients saw incredible improvements in mental health, from their exercise routine, and from enjoying a more stable, enjoyable, and nutritious diet, working with a Dietician, or following simple, standard suggestions.
I’ve enjoyed sweet potatoes most of my life, and around 2014 as a college student looking to spend as little money as possible on food, I figured out that I could buy 8-10 pounds of sweet potatoes every week for less than $10. That would account for a majority of the food I’d need while being enjoyable, accessible on the go, and nutritious. With weekend meal preparation for the week, I'd bake the sweet potatoes, pulling together all the pulp in one dish (saving the skins for a separate meal). After chilling in the fridge, marinating in its own sugar, I found the smooth and sweet mixture to be incredibly versatile. Experimenting with various spices and add-ins, I'd offer friends, colleagues, and clients a chance to try some. With great feedback, I’d jokingly say “I should turn this into sweet potato ice cream, like the next froyo.” On a business school trip while at BU in 2016 to Beijing and Hong Kong, saw that their version of sweet potato ice cream was actually a common item! While learning more about the food industry over time, and in late-June of 2020 thinking about what to do next, a friend reminded me about running with the sweet potato ice cream concept. Shortly after, I found the Worcester Regional Food Hub and got to work!
With a background in adjacent areas, I wanted to make sure we did this right and building on a strong foundation. I started to research more about the sweet potato crop obsessively. Its power as a nutritious and drought-resistant crop beneficial for soil health, and the rich, global, and diverse history "of this splendid vegetable” (to quote George Washington Carver below). Building with my conviction, experience, and education on the power of what we call doing “Just Business,” building “The Just Food Co.” as a social enterprise. A commitment to using plants grown as sustainably and ethically as possible in our products, and that our team, our community, and the environment all grow sustainably and equitably with us. And of course, to offer Sweet foods that are not only delicious, but also nutritious! That’s enough talking for now, there’s a long way to go but it’ll be Sweet! In a bitter world, it's time for Sweetness, are you with us?
"There are but few if any of our staple farm crops, receiving more attention than the sweet potato, and indeed rightfully so. The splendid service it rendered during the great World War in the saving of wheat flour, will not soon be forgotten. The 99 different and attractive products (to date) made from it, are sufficient to convince the most skeptical that we are just beginning to discover the real value and marvelous possibilities of this splendid vegetable.” (Tuskegee Institute Experiment Station Bulletin #38 "How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing It for the Table” George Washington Carver, 1922)