By: Joan Chung
Elly Truesdell may have just recently joined the WITS Advisory Board, but she has played a role in Wellness in the Schools’ story since 2009. WITS had just begun a partnership with Whole Foods Market (WFM) that year, and she vividly remembers unloading cases of tomatoes and potatoes for WITS Labs at the WFM Bowery location. “I feel like I saw the program when it was in its beginning stages, and it has been absolutely amazing seeing it grow,” says Elly.
Today, Elly is the Chief Strategy Officer at Canopy Foods, a food production studio that offers support in both brand strategy and manufacturing. Elly’s journey within the food space is a remarkable one. After she graduated from college, she knew she wanted to do something in food but was not quite sure what that would look like. While her friends all had serious jobs in investment banking and consulting, she found a role in a restaurant group that led a variety of interesting concepts, such as a specialty produce store and a demonstration kitchen. Within this position, she saw many different sides of the food industry, such as an “event” side and a “high-end restaurant” side. She also built relationships with the farmers who provided the produce. This prompted her to work a short stint on a farm, and experience first-hand how food went from soil to plate. She realized the restaurant industry was not really for her, and that she wanted to work for a mission-driven company that was connected to agricultural sustainability and good sourcing in some way.
For Elly, Whole Foods Market was the gold standard. She worked at a store in the marketing department and worked her way up, meeting Nancy along the way. “Nancy had submitted an application for sponsorship or donations, and I was overseeing those for the Northeast region at the time. We met to review the ask, and our relationship blossomed from there,” says Elly.
As she continued working for WFM, she knew that there was a ‘local forager’ position available for the Northeast region. After learning about the role, she made it her mission to make that her job. After one year of dedicated preparation to make herself a good candidate, she officially started in 2012 as the local forager. Through the position, she was responsible for finding and supporting local providers of products. She found herself on oyster boats, visiting dairy farms, and talking to ice cream manufacturers to see which goods should and could enter the large retail environment that is WFM – a dream job. Thanks to Elly, beloved products such as Purely Elizabeth granola and Stumptown Coffee can be found on the WFM shelves today.
Echoing the spirit of WITS, Elly says that her favorite thing about the position was building relationships with people. “I played this intermediary role between product and Whole Foods, and helped bridge the two,” she says. Of course, this was not an easy task, mostly due to the overwhelming amount of product that exists in this competitive space. “It’s a bit disheartening because there are a lot of opportunists, but we really needed to feel like the business was offering an exceptional product. It had to reach this high level of quality and ingredient compilation, offer something new and meet consumers in a new way.”
After nine years at WFM, Elly found herself facing one consistent and glaring challenge – smaller growing producers were finding it difficult to find a co-packer or third party manufacturer that was going to preserve the product’s integrity, while helping the business tremendously scale. She joined Canopy Foods this past January as Chief Strategy Officer to help address this issue. While Canopy Foods is her full time role, she also spends 25% of her time as Portfolio Manager of Almanac Insights, an investment fund started by David Barber that extends the values of regenerative agriculture into venture capital.
As someone who was connected to WITS so early on, Elly is excited to now be a part of our Advisory Board. “I was able to contribute in this small way in the beginning, and I’m excited to now be a part of the Advisory Board after having built this skill set along the way. I’m looking forward to spending more time in schools, volunteering and doing some of the work side-by-side to really see the programming in action. I’ve heard so much about WITS and have seen certain elements, but I now have an opportunity to get much more involved.”
While the concept of getting more fruits and vegetables into a child’s diet is simple, Elly knows that it is a greater challenge than it appears. However, she believes that the WITS approach of teaching hands-on Labs and exposing children to new menu items is a thoughtful, unique model that will have a lasting impact. “When I think about the future of school lunch, I see more colors and more food in their whole form, and I think about it being a more interactive experience. I want children to actually get to play a role in making the food in some way. Cooking and working with food yourself ultimately plays a huge role when it comes to understanding health and nutrition, and WITS knows how to present it in a smart, playful, and clever way.”
The years Elly spent at Whole Foods Market imparted a deep awareness on the importance of health and nutrition. Says Elly, “It completely changed my life and really shifted the way I live. More importantly, it contributed to the way I think about children, and the way I think about families. WITS makes an impact not just on the individual child, but on the whole family, and I’ve always been inspired by Nancy and the work we do for that reason.”
Thank you, Elly! WITS is so excited to have you join our Advisory Board.