If two SOM students have their way, instead of pretzels, New Haven students will soon be eating ants-on-a-log — celery sticks filled with peanut butter sprinkled with raisins on top.
Benjamin Beinecke ’07 SOM ’10 and Isadora Tang SOM ’10 founded MyLu Foods, a New Haven based start-upthat aims to make healthy pre-packed snack food for kids and are currently providing trial offerings of their products within local community programs such as New Haven Reads. While they plan to run a pilot in New Haven in December, Beinecke and Tang, along with Kate Siskel ’06, a consultant for MyLu Foods, are also competing for a $5,000 grant and up to $17,500 in matching pledges. The three students are currently running as Team Lunch Time in a video-based entrepreneurship competition run by web-platform Yoxi to “reinvent fast food.”
“Isadora and I both love good food, so it didn’t make any sense to us that nutritious food wasn’t convenient and convenient food wasn’t nutritious,” Beinecke said. “With MyLu Foods, we’re trying to fix that.”
Beinecke said the company was founded with the belief that for-profit businesses are an effective vehicle for social improvement and that MyLu Foods would make healthy foods more accessible and affordable for everyone. The pair believe that creatively prepared and affordable nutritious food, such as trial offerings such as pita pockets organized in a convenient boxed compartments, is the solution to America’s growing obesity problem.
Improving Americans’ nutrition faces several obstacles incuding access to healthy food, Siskel said. She pointed to a USDA report which found that 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in low-income areas that are over a mile from the nearest supermarket.
“As many New Haven residents know, it can be hard to buy healthy and affordable food without easy access to a supermarket, which often provides a wider range of fresh and nutritious food at lower prices than do convenience stores,” she said.
By increasing the quantity and quality of healthy and affordable food at New Haven stores, she explained, MyLu foods would increase consumption and, consequently, lead to an increase in the health of consumers.
The company has benefited from the support of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI). YEI selected Beinecke and Tang as 2010 Summer Fellows and provided start-up space to the company, according to director James Boyle.
Boyle said the 10-person operating board of the YEI thought the venture was a good idea, but raised two challenges that lie in MyLu Foods’ future: raising additional capital and establishing an initial product that can develop a following.
“Isadora and Ben’s research [during the YEI Summer Incubator] spanned the potential customer range from low-income communities to premium natural food store shoppers,” he said. “And the interest in healthier snacks on the go for kids was resounding across the board.”
Those involved with student reading program New Haven Reads, which has been a testing ground for MyLu Foods, responded positively to the venture. MyLu Foods provided samples of potential products, such as ants-on-a-log, to the students in the programs and gauged reactions.
Chris Griffin, director at the program’s Dixwell center, said while many of his students had never been exposed to foods like wholegrain pita pockets and ants-on-a-log, and initially questioned eating them, the majority of students enjoyed their taste. He added that his students particularly liked assembling their own foods from the MyLu Foods package.
Co-executive director of New Haven Reads Chris Alexander said the healthy, fun snacks were a welcome alternative to the pretzels that they usually served to students.
“As an organization, we absolutely loved having healthy snacks here,” she said.
Meanwhile, Team Lunch Time has advanced to the second round of the Yoxi, an internet entrepreneurship competition. In the first round, 10 teams made 90-second videos expressing their perspectives on fast food and healthy alternatives, with six advancing to the next round based on online voting.
The competition, hosted on Yoxi.tv, allows anyone to vote or pledge money to any of the competing ventures, with the ultimate aim of finding creative solutions to social problems.
Videos for the second round, which will feature actual products or services that address the challenge of reinventing fast food, will be available online Nov. 29. Voting is open to all, and runs from Nov. 30 to midnight Dec. 1.