The College of the Atlantic team that developed the pitch for the Veggie Van, including, from left, Rebekah Heikkila ’21, Indigo Woods ’21, Hanna Lafferty ’19, Lily Gehrenbeck ’21, and Donovan Glasgow ’21 accept their second-place prize at The New England Food System Innovation Challenge.The College of the Atlantic team that developed the pitch for the Veggie Van, including, from left, Rebekah Heikkila ’21, Indigo Woods ’21, Hanna Lafferty ’19, Lily Gehrenbeck ’21, and Donovan Glasgow ’21 accept their second-place prize at The New England Food System Innovation Challenge.

Donovan Glasgow ’21, Indigo Woods ’21, Hanna Lafferty ’19, Rebekah Heikkila ’21, and Lily Gehrenbeck ’21 developed the Veggie Van proposal through COA business professor Jay Friedlander’s Sustainable Strategies course as a way to provide affordable, accessible, real food to some of Maine’s poorest residents in nearby Washington County, and to empower them to purchase produce with dignity and autonomy.

The team spent two days at St. Joseph’s College for the event, meeting with many teams of lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other business experts for one full day, revising their pitch, and then listening to pitches from teams from Unity College (who came in first), St. Joseph’s, University of Maine, and elsewhere. The second place finish came with a $500 award, which can be used for future market research on the business.

Professor Jay Friedlander is the Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business at College of the Atlantic. The Veggie Van team developed their business proposal in his Sustainable Strategies course.Professor Jay Friedlander is the Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business at College of the Atlantic. The Veggie Van team developed their business proposal in his Sustainable Strategies course.“It was a bit exhausting, but overall incredibly rewarding,” Woods said. “I had never experienced anything like this before—receiving so much feedback in such a short time, having to pitch an idea in just a few minutes, networking, and everything else.”

The Veggie Van would provide access to affordable produce and support local farmers in Washington County, where one in three children are living in poverty. The van would set up in churches, community centers, schools, and near gas stations and convenience stores that already functioning as sole food suppliers for many households.

“We were brainstorming how to fill gaps of food insecurity and meet those needs, and then we were like, well, what if we just treat it like a health issue, like a mobile health clinic, but with nutrition and vegetables,” Lafferty said. “And that made sense, because food and nutrition really are public health issues.”

The team drew from members’ varying experience studying food systems and business. Lafferty, Glasgow, and Woods were all taking Dr. Kourtney Collum’s Transforming Food Systems course as well as Friedlander’s course.

“I have always been somebody who likes to incorporate many ideas and perspectives into my work, and so this was a great opportunity for me to do so,” Woods said. “We incorporated a process we learned from Transforming Food Systems called the Theory of Change, which helped us make sure our business ideas would operate to make social change, and that we were looking at the root causes of the problem.”

Creating positive social change is a motivating factor that tied together all of the members of the team. Learning how this could be done through entrepreneurship was especially compelling, Glasgow said.

College of the Atlantic's Veggie Van team works on their proposal during day one of the Food System Innovation Challenge at St. Joseph's College in Maine.College of the Atlantic's Veggie Van team works on their proposal during day one of the Food System Innovation Challenge at St. Joseph's College in Maine.“I came into this project very skeptical of the potential of the private sector and businesses to do actual good,” Woods said. “After Jay’s class, and after this project, I feel like it’s not so black and white. There’s a lot of room through business to actually affect real change.”

Bill Seretta, president of the Sustainability Lab, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit, and Tom Settlemire of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust created the Challenge in 2015. Its mission is to encourage entrepreneurs to create new, sustainable enterprises that improve the production, distribution, aggregation and processing of locally raised food and seafood, expand consumption, and create jobs.

Besides receiving cash prizes, winners receive processional services including legal marketing and business development to help them develop their business idea and get their enterprise off the ground.

College of the Atlantic Partridge Chair in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems Dr. Kourtney Collum taught COA's Veggie Van team the Theory of Change in her Transforming Food Systems course, helping them ensure their business proposal would meet their social justice objectives.College of the Atlantic Partridge Chair in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems Dr. Kourtney Collum taught COA's Veggie Van team the Theory of Change in her Transforming Food Systems course, helping them ensure their business proposal would meet their social justice objectives. Credit: Christy Murray PhotographyLafferty, Woods, and Glasgow all said that while the Challenge was intense, it was validating to know they could interact so well with business experts, and speak their language, while remaining true to their cause. And that cause, Lafferty said, remains of utmost importance.

“You have to do the best that you can to try to give other people some sort of leg up. It’s the only okay way to exist in the world,” she said. “If you are someone who has had opportunities and who is in a place to positively influence others, to not do that is irresponsible.”

The Veggie Van is not the first project to emerge from one of Friedlander’s classes that has done well at the Challenge. In late 2016, a COA team took home the first place prize in the college track with their proposal for [Re]Produce, which would sell frozen surplus or cosmetically imperfect farm vegetables. Two members of the team, Grace Burchard ’17 and Anita van Dam ’19, went on to win first place in the UMaine Business Challenge the following year. Van Dam is still working with sustainable business ideas and helped coach Veggie Van members this time around.