Ask many Americans where their food comes from, and they will tell you the grocery store or increasingly from one of the myriad of food delivery services. The industrialization of agriculture allowed the country to scale production at a low price, creating an abundance of fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets and the perception that we can get anything we want at any time. An unintended consequence of this revolution has been a food illiterate constituency that possesses little knowledge of the origins of their food. Now with our agrarian past firmly in the rearview mirror, the distance between consumers and their food continues to widen.
The Oakland-based company, Back to the Roots, is hoping to foster a greater relationship between people and their food with its ready-to-grow and ready-to-eat products. "A modern food brand should be connecting the dots between where food comes from," said Nikhil Arora, co-founder, Back to the Roots.
Back to the Roots is part of a growing number of companies looking to upend the food system. While many of its Bay Area brethren have taken to engineering food in labs, Back to the Roots is low-tech, which is to say not technical at all. "We have been growing food for thousands of years," said Arora. "We are doing something right, and we don't need to throw it out the window."
The company is removing the complexity of growing food by providing easy to use kits that require only one or two steps to get started. Its maiden product, a Mushroom Farm, allows people to produce gourmet oyster mushrooms out of a box just by adding water. Users can also harvest fresh herbs from their windowsill with Back to the Roots' Garden-in-a-Can line and grow organic cherry tomatoes with its Self-Watering Planter that utilizes ancient irrigation technology that employs an unglazed clay pot known as an olla to water the plant.
While these kits aren't going to replace trips to the grocery store, they do strengthen the connection to the dinner plate that has been degraded in modern times. Furthermore, evidence suggests that people who produce their own food eat healthier. Researchers from Cornell University found that children who grow their own vegetables are four times more likely to eat them. And a study looking at the dietary habits of adults who garden compared to non-gardeners had similar results.
The notion of exposing more children and adults to the tradition of gardening is what excited Home Depot about Back to the Roots and led to a nationwide rollout of its products. "You see kids spending most of their time on video games or on their phone," said Diana Kelly, regional vice president, Home Depot. "We thought, what if we could tap into that group of customers and show them how they can grow food like their grandparents used to years ago?"
The home improvement retailer also saw Back to the Roots as a way to extend gardening to people who live in cities and who might have limited access to greenspace. "For urban communities where you don't have a lot of land these products actually make such a difference," said Kelly.
Back to the Roots brought the same ideology of simplifying food and making it accessible when it launched its ready-to-eat line of products. Its organic stoneground cereals each contain only three to four ingredients, and they are all elements that people know. "With this brand Back To the Roots, the same ethos can translate from ready-to-grow products to read- to-eat products," said Arora. "It is all the spectrum of convenience. Sometimes you want to take the time to grow it, and sometimes you are busy and just need something ready."
In today's technoculture there is a tendency by companies to want to overcomplicate everything, and while there maybe a role for technology to play it might be better left off our plate. As Arora suggested, "Let's use technology not to invent new foods but to better distribute food, better communicate where it comes from and build transparency."