Anya Fernald: Getting Real with Sustainability

01 Mar, 2010

There are challenges for anyone entering into a sustainable food business today. The titanic industrial agriculture machine that feeds the bulk of America provides cheap, assembly-line food that costs less to produce than nutritious food grown with consideration for the environment. The commercial media is largely supported by advertising revenues from this same machine and continues to entice consumers with the virtues of cheap, processed and “conventionally” produced food. The question becomes, how can a small-scale sustainable-food business survive in such an environment, bring their products to market, price them affordably, and effectively reach the consumer?

It is exactly this set of problems that Anya Fernald—along with her consulting company, Live Culture—is wholeheartedly and successfully addressing, for a growing roster of sustainable-food clients.

Great Taste and Top Chefs

Like a number of others—most notably some of today’s finest chefs, such as Alice Waters, Dan Barber and Wolfgang Puck—Anya came to an appreciation of fresh, locally grown produce through her palate. “I came to sustainable food from a fine-food perspective,” she told Organic Connections. “It was about cooking and quality food in general, eating well and serving good food, and things that tasted wonderful. And it was just immediately obvious, once I began understanding better quality food, that quality came from traditional holistic approaches to agriculture and food production.”

Love of great food is one of Anya’s prime motivating factors to this day. In addition to being someone who is always discovering new things and cooking for herself, her family and a wide array of friends, she is a frequent judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America and was also on the judging panel for the 2009 season of The Next Iron Chef.

Through her guest appearances on Food Network, she has seen the trend moving toward sustainability. “On the inside at Food Network, when I’m there and talking to the people, many of the staff are composting, putting in roof gardens, getting rid of hormone-fed meat—they’ve obviously made a lot of progress internally,” Anya said. “Food Network also just did a special on the White House garden with a focus on local, sustainable food. So it’s obvious much more is on the horizon for them in this area.”

Sustainability is becoming increasingly popular among top chefs. Along with taste, Anya believes there is a personal connection as well. “I know a lot of chefs who have had personal transformation moments because they discovered the interaction around food—they like the humanity and the personal connection associated with making food. And when they go to a farmers’ market, or the farmer comes direct to their back door, they actually have a much more pleasurable experience. It takes more time and work than simply buying off a list, but there’s definitely a greater gratification and excitement around it.”

But the problem arises, how does one get this great taste—and the superior nutrition that causes that great taste—into the mainstream? “In my work, I face the constant struggle of figuring out how to produce better food for a cost that is within shouting distance of the cost of industrial mass-produced food,” Anya said.

Hitting the Price Point

Anya and her company are out to show that sustainably grown and produced food doesn’t have to break the bank—in fact, it can be obtained at a decent cost factor. Take, for example, the project that Live Culture created, an ongoing series of participatory conserved-food production events called Yes, We Can (Food). “In helping make local fresh food more affordable for everyone, I considered simply scaling up the same tools that I use to make sustainable locally produced food affordable in my own life,” she said. “First up: canning. How do you make organic local handmade jam affordable? Make it yourself. Yes, We Can grew out of this thought process—figuring out how to make good food in large quantities affordable and, along the way (and not incidentally), share the fun and exhilaration of doing it yourself.”

It’s a very interesting project. Basically, 80 people pitch in to buy fruit, jars and all the incidentals needed to make the product. Of those people, 60 pay approximately 85 percent of the cost of the inputs, and the other 20 pay the remaining 15 percent but also contribute four hours of their labor to actually process and pack the product. Yes, We Can is run at break-even—they didn’t build profit into the model—with the goal of making the products as affordable as possible. The end result is $3-a-jar jam (8 oz), $3-a-jar pickles (16 oz) and $3-a-jar tomatoes (32 oz), plus a whole host of other products. “The canning sessions are truly work sessions—not canning lessons,” said Anya. “Participants learn how to get their hands dirty and are given an overview of everything that’s happening, but are really contributing their labor to produce the product.”

Another project of Live Culture is the Eat Real Festival, a regular local event in Oakland, California. This festival, with its slogan “Putting the food back in fast,” is aimed squarely at the average consumer. Everything at the event is priced under five dollars. The last event witnessed 50 taco trucks serving sustainable street food to an estimated 70,000 people and included a butchering contest and exchange of home-canned and foraged food. “The concept is to market sustainable, healthy, environmentally sound products at an extremely affordable price,” Anya explained. “And instead of trying to change someone’s whole lifestyle, we look at coming in at an affordable price point for, say, protein. Let’s start with hormone-free meat and organic milk, as those tend to be issues that somebody with a more limited food budget is focused on. Let’s make the beginning changes and use that as a portal to coaching and getting more engagement on other categories.”

Getting the Show(s) on the Road

In addition to helping various groups bring affordable food to consumers, Anya and her company are also assisting them to expand into booming businesses.

She is uniquely qualified to do so. After spending a year of her early career as a cheesemaker and another as a baker, Anya realized that such enterprises could use some business help. She assisted artisan cheesemakers in southeastern Sicily with business plans and shortly became involved with the Slow Food Foundation in Italy. From that position she developed and implemented a micro-investment program that supported small-scale artisan food producers in over 30 countries as varied as Madagascar, Sweden, Ecuador and Bosnia. She then returned to her home state of California to lead a Farm-to-School program and to work as Program Director at the California Buy Fresh, Buy Local Campaign for CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers). In 2007, Anya launched the inaugural edition of the Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco, serving as Executive Director.

Anya left Slow Food Nation in 2008 to found the Live Culture Company, which brings together the diverse aspects of Anya’s background and training to advise and support the development of profitable, values-driven food businesses. “We’ve really grown in our first year,” Anya related. “I think our client roster is very healthy. We’ve got a mix of clients from across the US and two in South America as well.”

The approach she takes with these companies stems from the philosophy that sustainably produced products mean higher quality. “I’m saying to my clients, ‘Increase the overall holistic approach to your production system and you’re going to find that you are producing better quality products.’ We are looking at it from a premium and quality production standpoint. How do you get the best quality product? How do you get the best flavor? How do you create something that’s on an international level of quality? I constantly find that where someone is practicing agriculture that’s in tune with the natural environment, they produce the better quality.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only the small companies that can produce quality products, either. “I want to make a distinction that big isn’t bad, and small isn’t necessarily good,” Anya stated. “I actually think that a big part of the solution is going to be in larger-scale, more conventionally minded enterprises. I feel like there is this kind of push toward a pastoral ideal where the mountains are blanketed with a tapestry of tiny fully integrated, highly diverse farms. I don’t see that as being a realistic future. I think that the solution in the future is, in part, in larger enterprises that will feed more people and produce more food. It’s a question of how to minimize the impact of larger-scale agriculture.”

Anya sees our dwindling natural resources as a major part of the driving force toward sustainable mainstream agriculture. “I think there’s going to be more of an awareness of—and market impact related to—limited resources,” she said. “Much of the unsustainability is linked to the fact that it’s an oil-based system, requiring huge amounts of nitrogen and petroleum—many inputs that come from deep within the earth. I think that the increasing scarcity of those inputs is going to be one big driver.”

She sees another propelling factor toward sustainability in the steadily increasing consumer demand to really know where food is coming from—known as traceability. “I use that word with caution because traceability also means highly expensive codified ways of tracking products through the value chain,” Anya pointed out. “Another approach to traceability is knowing your farmer and feeling like this product is safe because you know who made it. They look you in the face once a month or once a year or once a week; that’s the type of traceability and responsibility I’m referring to.”

Anya shares her vision for the future of consumerism. “In about 20 or 30 years, the concept that a cantaloupe is a cantaloupe is going to be less relevant for an increasing number of consumers. They’ll want to know which farm it came from, what region it came from. Those are the issues that are going to become more and more important. I think it’s more of an issue of knowing the name of the farmer and the area where it’s grown, and that information traveling down the value chain.”

For further information on Anya Fernald and Live Culture, please visit

About the author