Doing the Dirt(y) work to Tackle Food Waste & Create Great Jobs Sarah & Noah Marsh - Co-Founders, FoodFWD

Noah & Sarah are the co-founders of FoodFWD, a triple-bottom line food waste diversion company based in North Carolina.  Noah is a former commercial kitchen manager that realized that the biggest opportunity for a restaurant to reduce its waste is through composting its food.  Sarah has a Masters Degree from UNC-CH and is passionate about providing jobs and opportunities for persons from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Noah began looking into food waste diversion in the spring of 2012. At the time, no one was willing to bring his food scraps to composters for an economically feasible cost. He had reached out to several food waste diversion companies operating in Missouri and South Carolina. Wanting to learn more, he attended a conference on food waste diversion that fall. His key takeaway from the conference was there is food waste to divert and people that want to compost it, but there are not enough people willing to haul it from the businesses to the composters.

During the summer of 2013 Noah and Sarah went to Peru and hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and took this photo:

There, thousands of feet above sea level, accessible only by a dirt road or on foot, at a site thousands of years old and considered one of the seven wonders of the world they were diverting food waste. This is when Noah and Sarah realized it was time to launch Food FWD.

It was such a pleasure to meet Noah & Sarah and learn about their path to launching their family-run social enterprise.  I also loved getting the chance to photograph them with their adorable kiddos, 3-year old Audrey and 19-month-old Mason.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what path did you follow? 

Noah: I was running a commercial kitchen at Chili’s and I wasn’t getting the support I needed to make the sustainable changes I wanted. Specifically, I wanted to change out faucets to automatic faucets in the bathroom. I also recommended changing out some of the light switches to sensors – in storage rooms and in the office – so those lights weren’t on unnecessarily. I also had looked into lower-flow nozzles for watching dishes. All of these changes would have saved the company money over time and been good for the environment, but my management wasn’t open to making the investment.  At the same time, I was working 70-80 hours a week.  Despite this, I was getting lectured for not coming in early to help another manager. My work-life balance was unsustainable, because there essentially was no balance. It was all about the single bottom line of profit, not people or planet at all. I knew that there was a better way to run a company and I wanted to be that company for other people.

Sarah: While Noah was at Chili’s, I was taking Gary Nelson’s class at the UNC School of Social Work where I learned about social entrepreneurship and social innovation.  Gary’s class was the first introduction I had to the idea that you can start a business for social good. For me it was an ‘aha’ lightbulb moment. Having grown up in a conservative Christian home my focus had always been on supporting charity. I thought the only way to give back was through non-profits.

When I got into social work, everyone felt that businesses were horrible and they treated people terribly. I also saw that non-profits are out there asking for money and they are forced to chase the funding sources. In both cases, it didn’t seem like these models make sense long term.

Noah and I want to harness the power of business and put the values that we hold into the purpose of the business.

Tell me a bit about how FoodFWD is helping to make a positive impact?  

Noah: I think that the most direct way that we’re making an impact is we’re keeping food out of the landfill and getting it composted.  We’re doing approximately 18 tons of waste diversion per week,  so that’s 36,000 lbs of waste per week kept out of landfills.

We also try to think about the whole lifecycle of the products we use. We try to use things that can be recycled, when possible; we’re passionate about trying to reuse something rather than buying new. For example, we’ve only bought a handful of new compost carts. When Waste industries, City of Durham, etc. orders a cart with their phone number and logo on it, the cart manufacturers print an extra 5% of the order (sometimes 30-40 carts) so they have extra non-defective carts.  If a few are printed wrong, this guarantees they have enough to sell.  We work with a company out of Michigan that partners with a B Corp called Cascade Engineering, that manufactures carts.  They take all of the overrun carts and rub off the hot stamps and then they sell them to us.

Sarah: We’re also interested in growing our company as a good business and employing  people that may need a second.  When we were looking for our second employee, we went to local non-profits TROSA and the Community Power Fund, both of which are working to help underemployed people re-enter the workforce. However, we need to hire people with CDLs and it turns out that people who have CDLs are at a higher level of employability because there is a nationwide trucking shortage.  People with CDLs aren’t having a particularly hard time finding jobs. On one hand, this is a good thing – it means people have jobs. However, for us, it can make achieving our goal of providing a great job for the underemployed a bit trickier.  We are having to work to form more connections in the community with workforce development organizations that are helping people who have had some sort of barrier to employment or instability in their lives.

We want to be a good employer. We want to provide support – from having a bank account to investing for retirement. I was really fortunate to have grown up with a really good financial education in terms of how to manage personal finances,and I want to help our employees to successfully navigate those financial responsibilities too.

One of the things I’ve discovered from being a social worker is that employment and poverty are closely tied.  Employment gives people a big sense of meaning, accountability, and a social group to connect to.  If you don’t have stable employment that meets your basic needs, you’re going to struggle with all other aspects of your lives.

However, the upfront investment in getting a CDL isn’t cheap.  We sent Noah to trucking school for $2500. That was fine for a startup cost, but when it comes to investing in potential employees, as a small business we have to think carefully about how to keep our costs sustainable. We definitely plan to continue to develop relationships with workforce development organizations as we work to achieve our mission.

Noah: Our employees also need to have desire to work early morning hours and to be ok with being around food waste. Not everyone is cut out to deal with trash at the early hours if the morning. We’re small, but we try to be good bosses to our employees.  We give our employees some flexibility in their schedules and we’re hoping to add benefits next year, even though we’re small.

For example, our most recent driver was working 50-hours at his last job to make the money he needed. I explained to him that our goal is for him to work 40-hours. We want to pay him a fair salary where he can actually be ok working only 40-hours.  We don’t want him to feel like he has to work overtime to make ends meet. We also want our employees to be able to do whatever it is that they are working for – to be with their family, to spend time at church on the weekends, etc. and not have to work a second job.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

Noah: In addition to struggling with our pipeline for qualified employees, our next largest challenge we face is actually our trucks.  We buy used trucks (1) to save some money (2) as part of our goal of reusing items. Typically, garbage trucks run for 20-years if they are well taken care of. Our most recent truck that we purchased is a lemon… it shouldn’t be having the issues it’s having.  Managing truck repairs is a huge issue. If we can’t use the correct equipment, our work takes longer, it adds stress to our drivers, and it doesn’t allow us to give a quality work environment for our employees. Plus, it’s the added financial stress to get them repaired and find rentals to keep operations going as usual.

Sarah: One of the other barriers I’m personally facing is the tension between wanting to pour myself into our business and having the time to devote to it… while we’re in this startup phase I’m still maintaining my employment.  I knew when Noah left his full time job he going to be investing 60 – 80+ hours a week into this. We also have 2 kids that we’re raising and need to support.

Now we’re facing that second decision point as to when it makes sense for me to leave my full time employment to fully invest in FoodFWD.  So many students have asked me ‘How do you pay your bills?’ I think it’s an important thing to consider when you’re thinking about becoming an entrepreneur. To make ends meet, many people need to do gig work or work 2 jobs until things take off.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Noah: The biggest thing I would stay, is to approach change with how I started when I was managing a commercial kitchen – change where you are at first. If you’re passionate about it, your passion can be contagious.  Also, when following your passion for changing the world, use your spheres of influence to make an impact.  If you don’t start now, you’ll never be in the position to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself.  I’m not saying everyone is going to want to start their own business. I don’t think everyone wants to.  However, if you put your time and energy into doing something you care about, you’ll ultimately change the world. Start small and just do it.

Sarah: Identify what it is that you’re passionate about and start talking to a lot of people about it.  What Noah and I learned when we were first starting our business was the importance of networking.  When we shared our ideas, people would connect us to so many great contacts.

We asked our business mentor early on whether we should share our idea with others.  We feared that someone might hear our idea and a competitor might come into the space first.  He said, if there is a competitor that could come in that easily, then it is too simple of an idea. Ideas are easy, implementation is always hard.

The other advice I would have is to take the leap.  If we had known how much happier Noah would be after he quit his job at Chili’s, we would have done it sooner. The fear of taking that step doesn’t let you see how much of a difference in quality of life it can mean for you.  Finding happiness and purpose in your work can really change your life for the better.