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Entrepreneurs prep for sustainable food businesses at ASU

Nosh on local goodies at the Oct. 18 Prepped Showcase on ASU's downtown campus.
September 20, 2019

Prepped accelerator program welcomes School of Sustainability among its collaborators

Update: At the Oct. 18 Prepped Showcase, Sana Sana Foods owner Maria Parra Cano won the $5,000 grand prize and Cantaguas owners Elva Covarrubias and Irene Gonzalez the $3,000 second prize. Churro GoNUTZ won the $2,000 people’s choice award. See photos from the evening in the slideshow below.

What the food industry needs now is more players in a circular food economy — one that improves rather than degrades the environment.

ASU School of Sustainability Professor Arnim Wiek proclaimed this to a rapt group of about 20 on a recent Wednesday night at the HEALab entrepreneurial space on the Downtown Phoenix campus where they had gathered to participate in Prepped, a free, early-stage food business accelerator program designed for ventures owned by women and underrepresented minorities.

Founded in 2016 as a collaborative effort between Entrepreneurship and Innovationa unit of ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the College of Health Solutions, Prepped welcomed a new partner into the mix this semester with the addition of the School of Sustainability.

The school’s inclusion in the program felt like a natural move, said Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University.

“Entrepreneurship and Innovation is always looking for ways to uphold ASU’s design aspirations,” she said. “Prepped already does a good job of valuing entrepreneurship, leveraging our place and being socially embedded. And since sustainability is such a key throughput in all things we do in the university, it just made sense that it should become a core aspect of Prepped.”

The program is geared toward owners of emerging food businesses that are beyond the idea stage, in revenue and seeking the tools to scale. Now, in addition to the already established curriculum that includes food costing and financial literacy, small business marketing and communication strategies, and permits and licensing, participants of Prepped are learning green business operations so that sustainability is built into their company from the start.

Prepped holds weekly classes each fall and spring, allows for interactive peer learning and provides financial support and one-on-one mentorship with industry experts.

During a recent class taught by Wiek, who contributed largely to the development of the new sustainability-centric curriculum, participants learned about food sourcing — local, seasonal, organic and fair trade.

“We’re trying to teach food economy, not just food enterprise,” said Wiek, who also serves as director of the Sustainable Food Economy Lab. “We want Prepped to be an accelerator of the sustainable food economy, which is slowly emerging across the state.”

That evening, he and guest lecturer Kristen Osgood, program manager for the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service, shared a variety of helpful tools with participants, including a seasonal availability guide and a sourcing template that can be used to identify green, local sources for ingredients.

The benefit of green, local sourcing is a factor some participants already know well. Hedda Fay, co-owner of Masa’s, a Prescott, Arizona, purveyor of homemade baked goods, attested that not only do some farmers markets require vendors’ products to contain a certain percentage of Arizona ingredients, but “if your packaging is plastic, don’t even bother showing up.”

She doesn’t mind abiding by those standards, though.

“For me, that’s important,” Fay said. “When you can tell a customer, ‘This is from (a local farm),’ or, ‘This is pesticide-free,’ it makes a difference.”

According to Osgood, Fay’s claim isn’t just anecdotal.

“Purpose-driven companies that align their business practices with their values often outperform ones that don’t,” she said. “People are tired of companies that are trashing the planet. They want to buy from companies that share their values.”

Since participating in Prepped last spring, Irene Arellano of Cantaguas has taken that to heart. (Though the School of Sustainability only became an official partner this semester, Wiek and other Prepped instructors began testing out the new sustainability curriculum on Arellano’s cohort.)

Cantaguas offers the traditional Mexican beverages known as aguas frescas, which blend water, fruits and vegetables. Before Prepped, Arellano and co-owner Elva Covarrubias mostly bought their ingredients at grocery stores and didn’t re-use their waste. Today, they source as much as possible from local growers, compost their waste and are in the process of switching to compostable materials for their packaging.

And they’ve seen business improve: They went from selling at one farmers market to selling at several, and have even expanded to catering events, with a couple of weddings already under their belt. What’s more, a couple of food truck vendors they became acquainted with through Prepped now carry their products.

“The sustainability lessons were a big eye-opener, because I don’t think we realized what we can actually do,” Arellano said. “We can compost all the fruits and veggies in our own garden, or other companies can do that for us. And we’re so much more aware of our community and what we can do to help one another.”

Later this month, Arellano and several ASU experts will be participating in Owning It, a traveling two-day intensive workshop for women with up-and-coming food businesses. Owning It is an extension of the James Beard Foundation’s Impact Programs, which aim to establish a more sustainable food system through education, advocacy and thought leadership.

This year, Phoenix was chosen as one of three locations to host the workshop due in large part to the work of such program participants as local chefs Sasha Raj of 24 Carrots and Danielle Leoni of The Breadfruit and Rum Bar — both of whom have served as mentors for Prepped.

While a curriculum is set and James Beard Foundation coordinates, they rely heavily on the locale's chefs to recommend other women to lead the daily courses and corresponding pitch competition.

This year, Venture Devils mentor Stephanie Sims, Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s director of community entrepreneurship Alicia Marseille, Prepped program coordinator Natalie Morris and Prepped mentor and owner of Phoenix coffee shop Fair Trade Café Stephanie Vasquez will all be playing a role in the event, bringing their varying expertise to the business owners in attendance.

The annual Prepped Showcase celebrating the accomplishments of the program’s fifth and sixth cohorts will take place Friday, Oct. 18, at the A. E. England Building on the Downtown Phoenix campus. The free event runs from 5 to 8 p.m.

Current Prepped participants Cesar and Erika Rodriguez, the husband-and-wife team behind Taqueria El Sol, are looking forward to serving up their eponymous El Sol tacos at next year’s showcase. For them, owning their own food truck business is the realization of a 10-year-long dream. They say sustainability is something they wanted to incorporate into their business “since Day 1.”

“Now that we’re here and we have these resources,” Cesar said, “we can guide our business in that direction even more.”

Infographic on stats of the Prepped food entrepreneurship program at ASU

Top photo: Prepped participant Erika Rodriquez (left) of Glendale food truck business Taqueria El Sol serves up some carne asada during class on Sept. 11. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Intellectual discourse takes center stage at ASU literary salon

The next Get Lit salon takes place at 7 p.m., 10/3 at Valley Bar.
Check out Revolution (Relaunch) from 8 a.m.-noon, 10/5 at Phoenix Public Market.
September 20, 2019

The Piper writers center revives Get Lit salon series to encourage community discussion, activism

Every first Thursday in downtown Phoenix, a revolution is stirring at the Get Lit salon series, a recently revived community literary event facilitated by ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

To attend is to feel as though you’re part of a clandestine secret society meeting in a speakeasy. From Monroe Street, you turn down the alley between Cornish Pasty and the U.S. Bank building and walk until you come to a door crowned in glowing red letters that read “Valley Bar.” You enter and immediately descend a creaky wooden staircase. Two hard lefts and you find yourself at an almost hidden doorway, tucked away in a corner beside a wine shelf. The room is small and dimly lit with old-fashioned lamps. The vintage furniture, the wall of books and tchotchkes and the exposed joists and pipes overhead evoke the comfort and familiarity of a friend's parent’s basement in some bygone decade.

At the event’s inaugural revival salon Sept. 5, the topic of conversation is radical newspapers, independent publishing and social justice. The evening’s host is Rosemarie Dombrowski, principal lecturer of English in ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and it’s fitting; when Get Lit was in its first iteration, Dombrowski served as the permanent host. Now, under the new model, each salon has a different host and anyone can submit ideas for the next salon’s discussion.

Inspired by 17th century salons that provided a space for intellectual discourse, Get Lit also now has a place to call home in this cozy underground corner of Valley Bar, something Piper Center communications specialist Jacob Friedman is grateful for.

“Having this space affords us the opportunity to grow and make this event more inclusive,” he told the crowd of about 30 who had gathered that first Thursday in September.

Things kicked off that evening with Dombrowksi announcing the completion of the first full issue of her latest publication venture, The Revolution (Relaunch). She describes it as “a revisionary, radical and creative resurgence of the weekly women’s rights newspaper founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1868.”

The goal of the paper (or “zineA zine is a small-circulation, self-published work of original or appropriated text and images.,” as Dombrowski is wont to call it) is to be a space for creative activism that highlights the local, grassroots social justice work of the community. It features everything from poetry to cultural criticism to creative nonfiction to interviews with activists and covers such topics as women and reproductive rights, indigenous rights, the Latinx community and the border, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and disability rights.

The Revolution (Relaunch) publishes the first of each month online and quarterly in print. Print copies are available for free at coffee shops and other small stores in and around Phoenix. They accept submissions year-round and encourage community members to contribute.

During the discussion that followed Dombrowski’s announcement, both the issue of accessibility and diversity were addressed, with salon attendees suggesting the publication also consider distributing via public transportation, where it might reach more people who could identify with its message, and also that the publication consider diversifying its editorial board, something Dombrowksi stated it is already aware of and strives for, even though she acknowledged it is mostly female at the moment.

“We don’t consider ourselves a feminist newspaper,” she said. “We’re certainly a place for the most inclusive kind of feminism, but we really consider ourselves a social justice paper.”

But what is social justice, anyway? Or, at least, what do we mean when we say something is a social justice issue?

“It has to grapple with something that is impacting a population negatively,” Dombrowski said, and that’s what she hopes The Revolution (Relaunch) will do.

“Every city needs a revolutionary publication,” she said.

At that point, one salon attendee asked those present if they’d ever heard of the Arizona Informant. A couple people raised their hands. The attendee, Phoenix resident Kirk Ivy, then explained that the Arizona Informant is an African American-owned newspaper published weekly in Phoenix.

“Black newspapers have been very important to social justice movements,” Ivy said. “We have to get out of the small universes that we live in. If we don’t reach out as individuals, we’re going to stay where we are.”

Dombrowski echoed Ivy’s sentiment regarding the role of publications in fueling social change.

“Zines have always been part of the cultural revolution,” she said, adding that she believes Emily Dickinson was a “zinester,” because even though she was only published in a newspaper four times in her life, “she was doing really radical work.”

“From Dickinson to Riot GrrrlRiot Grrrl is an international underground feminist movement that emerged from the West Coast American alternative and punk music scenes of the 1990s using zines as its primary method of communication., zines have been part of so many social revolutions; they’re a way to publish radical literature and a way to publish radical thought,” Dombrowski said. “But they have to be in and of the community.”

The Revolution (Relaunch) will be participating in the Piper Center’s Meet Your Literary Community event Saturday, Oct. 5, from 8 a.m. to noon at the Phoenix Public Market.

The next Get Lit salon will be held Thursday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. at Valley Bar. The topic is “Whose Gaze Is It, Anyways?,” and attendees can expect to ask themselves and each other such questions as, “How does colonization affect the creative process?”; “What is the white gaze?”; and “How do political, social and cultural discourses around specific ethnicities, races and groups shape the marketplace for literature?” Phoenix-based writer Rogelio Juarez will host.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay