Friday, March 4, 2011

Peace Corps Food Entrepreneurs

The Banaue rice terraces in the Phillipines are over two thousand years old.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a number of folks enter the food industry after stints in the Peace Corps. Of course there are far fewer of them than there are artists and musicians,  the clan who form the rank and file of the food world. But the Peace Corps folks I know are entrepreneurs and, without exception, they are driven like maniacs. They start with a mission. They develop really cool food businesses from scratch. Their undertakings are almost comically difficult (making and exporting chocolate from ultra-steamy Madagascar is one). These folks show the positive side of globalization that too many in the food world overlook.

One ex-Peace Corps food entrepreneur is Mary Claire Hensley. She was in the Corps in the Philippines, circa 1976. She was the first white woman to ever set foot in her village, called Uma. Almost 30 years later she started a company to bring some of the three hundred indigenous Philippines rices to America.

The rices she focuses on are sun dried, mostly organic (though not certified), grown on a stunning series of terraces. The terraces are ancient. They look like glowing green and gold puzzle pieces, stacked in tectonic layers. The work of Mary’s company helps repair them, helps keep them in use, and helps get farmers a meaningful price for their rice.

Some numbers are important to the story. The poverty line in the Philippines is $250 per year and subsistence farmers—which this area has a lot of, since rice is the number one business—usually fail to achieve that level. The standard price for their rice is 20 cents per kilo. Mary’s company pays $1.35-$1.80 per kilo. Her price immediately guarantees a wage above the poverty line.

Mary tries to make a market for this rice. Last year she sold all they made. They’d like to make more. That’s where we come in. We’ve committed to buying a farm’s worth of rice this year between two types: Tinawon White (Mary's favorite) and Kalinga Unoy, which has a ravishing brick orange color. We just got them in and put them on the website.

JFK announced the Peace Corps from the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960.
Check out the hats.

I don’t know if there are significant numbers of Peace Corps volunteers starting food businesses. I hope there are. I know I’m kind of biased, being in a food business located in Ann Arbor, where JFK gave the speech announcing the Corps. But the social mission of the Corps plus the social mission of great, traditional food seem like a natural match.

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