Food Mover Grace Mandarano

Back in 2007, Grace Mandarano and her husband Paul Sawtell ditched lucrative jobs in pharmaceutical sales to go travelling for seven months. They returned knowing they wanted something new, and came up with the idea of a food delivery business to help farmers in Ontario get produce into Toronto restaurants. The business, 100kmFoods, has been a huge success. As a consequence they’ve helped increase food security in the region, and encourage sustainable farming methods.

Getting the business off the ground wasn’t easy, especially while starting a family soon after. These days Mandarano runs the business while parenting her two boys, aged four and seven. We spoke to her about what she does, why it is important, and how balances her work with parenthood.

Why did you start doing what you do?

When we got home from traveling, we started to go to food talks in the city. The spark that started our business was a panel discussion between chefs and farmers saying that they worked together but neither one had the means to actually connect with each other. The farms in Ontario are all 100k + from Toronto. We have a hugely convenient place in the city for distributors to get cheap produce from California and other places, called the Ontario Food Terminal, and it seems to benefit everyone except none of the food is local, none of it is ripe or amazing quality. There are local farmers who participate, but they don’t often get the price they need because the imported product is dumped there at a reduced rate they find it hard to compete with.

The more we started looking into it, the more we realized that we had a fair trade issue in our own backyard, which is something we often think about as being an issue for farmers overseas. Rarely are these farms making an income where people can just farm and live, someone on the farm usually has to be working elsewhere and bringing in other income. To create change that benefits local farmers, we can’t use the model we have that squeezes vendors. Our model is that the farmers set their price and we mark up from there. We said, “If the market can support this then we’ve got something. If it can’t then it is just broken and we don’t know how to fix it.”

Then we met with some of the most prominent chefs in Toronto who were forward thinking, cared about their ingredients, and were forging these relationships with farms already, and their response was, “When can you start? We’ve been waiting for somebody to do this.”

We registered the business in February 2008, and started deliveries in April. In our first year we sold about $250,000 of produce, and in 2017 we’re trending to have seven million in revenue. I’m still wondering how that is possible!

What does this work bring to your life?

I feel like there’s no “but” in my life and I’m living my truth. When my son says to me, “Oh I forgot to tell you there was a food drive at school and they wanted canned food.” I can say to him that our business works with a food justice centre where they get organically grown food delivered to them from farms that supply the best restaurants in the city, and they have a chef on-site making amazing meals for people so they don’t have to eat Chef Boyardee! The way I teach my children to be in the world is how we live in the word — that is of huge value to me.

Why is this work important?

Well, it is food less traveled, but we know that since we started there are fewer conventional farms and more that have gone organic or at least growing sustainably. I think by virtue of us communicating to farmers that the chefs and end consumers actually care, that they’re willing to pay the extra 10–15 percent to get that product, has helped to change that. In terms of environmental impact, change is happening at a snail’s pace, but hopefully we’ve been drivers of that.

It is important to support local agriculture and farmers, and at the beginning we talked a lot about that. Five years ago I stopped cold and realized it had an almost charitable tone to it, but at the end of the day the food we bring into these kitchens is the best damn food they can get. That charitable tone stopped sitting well with me. We’ve heard a million times that it’s like Christmas when we pull up. Chefs tell us that there’s a different feel in their kitchen when they use our ingredients, and that they feel better knowing that their dollars are going to people that they know.

Has parenthood changed how you view your work?

Oh yes, one hundred percent. We had our first child two years into the business, and when he was two months old I lost the only admin person we’d hired. We had no support. Our parents were still working, and Paul was on the road all the time because when we first started he was the truck driver and I was everything else. I felt like it was the worst time in my life to have a child. It was only through talking about it with a chef friend that I realized it was the only time in my life that my ethics and how I drew an income were aligned. I’m teaching my children things without ever saying anything. I’m truly modeling what I think is valuable.

There’s an absolute value that comes with living life on your own terms.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about living with purpose?

I feel like this whole, “Find your passion,” thing has paralyzed people. I haven’t found my passion. Just find something that you think is broken, and find someway that you can help to be part of the fix. You don’t have to fix it, and the chances are that you can’t. There are huge forces at play that leave things broken deliberately, but you can try to be a part of what changes that.

You can make real change, as small as that might feel. If the needle moves a tiny bit, it is still worth it. When you come to terms with that, your whole life becomes an exhale, and it’s way better than being super concerned about everything and doing nothing.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

The struggle to get my kids showered and out the door for school every day! I don’t know how families where both parents work conventional jobs manage it. The craziness of managing everyone’s lives, and working the kids’ activities into that, it is hard.

What’s been hardest about what you do?

When we had our first kid we were maybe drawing $9000 a year from the business — we were just making the rent at that point and had to apply for a daycare subsidy, we just watched our line of credit get bigger and bigger. In hindsight going travelling set us up for entrepreneurship because we lived on $20 a day for that seven months. But, during those years our son ate amazing food and had at least one parent at home with him all the time. Now we get to have breakfast and dinner with our kids every day, and I feel incredibly fortunate that my works allows me to participate in their lives to this extent.

What other moms do you admire?

Michelle Obama. She is unapologetically female, which I love because I think the future of feminism is not about us all becoming more “male” but instead about us raising traditionally female traits in society. Us becoming a more cooperative and building society as opposed to a tearing down society is what needs to happen. I joke that, “It’s adorable that you guys had all these years to try this shit, but you clearly shouldn’t be the ones running this.” A femme approach to pragmatism I think is the future of feminism, so I think people that embody that are the ones that I find most inspiring.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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