Interest in home gardening has surged in recent years for several reasons: the economy, concerns over our food supply, and also because once the hard work of amending the soil is done, it is easy. Urban farming has seen an increase, too, generally because many urban areas are “food deserts” where access to fresh and healthy food is limited.
Non profit organizations have sparked urban farming in cities like Cleveland and Detroit where healthful food choices are particularly difficult to find. Now large companies are joining the bandwagon. Triscuit, the century-old cracker operated by the Kraft Food subsidiary, Nabisco, launched its urban farming initiative last week. Home Farming Day events were held from New York to Los Angeles that included over 3000 live participants and another 14,000 pledged online to do the same.
Triscuit partners with Urban Farming, an NGO that aims to create food for people in underserved areas by planting farms on unused land and space. The goal is to involve residents including youths and seniors to improve their community–and counter hunger–in poor neighborhoods. The partnership began last year and saw 50 such farms planted, with 15 more to start this year.
Why would a food processing company bother to start urban farms in the first place? Part of the answer is marketing; few of us will ever attempt to bake crackers in our home oven, but more consumers want to be connected with the food, so urban gardens a good step. Furthermore, in an age of diffused media messages, communication with brands and consumers is more of a conversation, not just dictation like television and radio advertising campaigns.
Social media can complement these messages, but a dull Facebook page thread with food parings and reminders of how great a brand shines simply is not enough. The Triscuit/Urban Farming partnership, is a promising move because it actually involves customers, and allows them to track their progress and share their successes and challenges with their ubiquitous “Facebook friends.” To that end, our crackers may come out of a box, but if the pesto, sliced tomatoes, or tapenade on top of the Triscuit comes from the yard or community garden, a difference–no matter how big or small–has been made.
Finally, the Triscuit partnership with Urban Farming is another example of what we will see even more in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) world. NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund have long caught on to the idea that partnering with large companies can help them achieve their long term social or environmental goals. Companies benefit because through NGOs, they gain access to professionals that can give them insight on how they can lessen their impact on people and the planet. In the end, companies will depend on non-profits for their long term survival because of their work on issues from packaging to energy efficiency to the safety of their ingredients and water supplies.
The Home Farming initiative is one of the food industries’ more creative projects. The challenge for companies like Kraft, however, is to discuss more about what goes into their products. Home gardening may make us feel great, but what about those Triscuits? Nabisco and Kraft are vague about what goes into those crackers, and consumers deserve more than assurances that they are eating “soft white winter wheat.” More transparency than what is offered about what goes into their food is needed in both Kraft’s CSR report and portal. With that said, we need more ideas to inspire people to grow food, not less, so the Triscuit urban gardening push is a welcome one.