The first thing you notice when you meet Giada De Laurentiis is her megawatt smile. It is the same one that has been beamed into our living rooms for the last 15 years courtesy of the Food Network. In that time, she has become a fixture in our lives, teaching us about Italian culture and food through stories about her heritage.
But more than a television personality, De Laurentiis is an astute business woman at the helm of an empire that includes two restaurants in Las Vegas and another one coming to Baltimore's Horseshoe Casino next month. She has an exclusive line of cooking tools, pastas and sauces at Williams Sonoma. This week, she released Giada's Italy, her ninth cookbook. And now she is setting her sights on snack foods and looking for a way to pay her success forward.
Earlier this month at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., De Laurentiis launched a ready-to-eat popcorn line with the snack food company Simply7. Made with red and blue corn, the products have more antioxidants than typically found in popcorn that use white and yellow corn. The line also incorporates De Laurentiis' signature Italian flair by using ingredients like parmesan cheese aged for 10 months and sea salt hand harvested from the 'Salt Road' in Sicily. But more than just creating a popcorn line, De Laurentiis wanted to find a way to give back.
When De Laurentiis and Simply7 first began discussing the collaboration, she asked if all the red and blue corn used to make the products could be sourced exclusively from female farmers in the U.S. "Unfortunately, the answer was no, because there aren't very many of them, and they wouldn't be able to supply it," she said.
In the U.S., women operate just 6.9 percent of farmland and represent only 3.3 percent of total agriculture sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). And the women who choose to make farming a career often face an uphill battle in their pursuit. They are commonly underrepresented within policy-making bodies and also have less access to capital to get their businesses up and running. In 2011, the Department of Justice announced a plan to resolve claims that women and other minorities were discriminated against by the USDA in making and servicing farm loans.
As a way to support the network of female farmers in the U.S., De Laurentiis and Simply7 launched Fund Her Farm. The initiative will provide a yet to be determined amount of donations from the sales of the popcorn to organizations like Annie's Project and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, which provide programs that help women grow their acreage and learn the business side of farming.
"A lot of these farmers are very isolated from one another, so there are no communities where they can get together to share information," said DeLaurentiis. "We want to create these communities to empower and better these female farmers."
By supporting these programs, De Laurentiis and Simply7 hope to eventually source all the red and blue corn they need for their popcorn line exclusively from female farmers across the country.
"I have gotten this far, so it is my turn to help out the next," explained De Laurentiis. "I am in the food business, and farmers are everything to us. We talk abou farm-to-table all day long, but we have to do something to change the perspective of that, and I don't know another way to do it."
De Laurentiis knows something about what it takes to rise to the top in a field of men. The restaurant and food world is notorious for being male-dominated, and female chefs are still often overlooked when it comes to industry recognition and career opportunities. Like many industries, it has also found itself engulfed by the #MeToo movement, with major allegations lodged against high profile chefs like Mario Batali, John Besh and Charlie Hallowell. But with the current conversation happening, she hopes that the culture in restaurants will change.
"I would like to see more respect for women," said De Laurentiis. "A lot of the answers I get about why I don't see more women [in restaurants] is that they just can't handle it. We can; we just need to be given the opportunities to do it."