“This is not a pepper” by Heather Katsoulis

February 9, 2017; Civil Eats

The concept of social enterprise has become increasingly more popular over in the past decade, and each of the many variations on the theme appears to come with a set of true believer proponents. This is the fuel that runs the engine of entrepreneurship, but when the smoke clears, we have to judge: Does this idea indeed work to further both sets of bottom lines? In particular, social apparel lines have helped bring the “buy-one-give-one” model to the forefront of social business efforts. Such frameworks allow customers to feel good about their purchase, as it sparks the donation of an item similar to the one they bought to a developing country or vulnerable local community. One social entrepreneur, however, is going beyond the growing clothing and accessory market, instead applying the model to help minimize food insecurity.

Nashville-based Mauro Seed Company has a “grow-one-give-one” approach. Its social and environmentally friendly mission is to “empower every person on the planet to feed themselves,” which it aims to accomplish through the sale and subsequent donation of non-GMO heirloom garden seeds. For every packet of seed purchased, the organization in turn donates a packet of seed to someone in need. According to the organization’s website, last year it donated enough seed to produce one million pounds of food for communities in the U.S. and around the world.

And, unlike a pair of shoes or reading glasses, a single seed has the potential to continue giving over the course of a lifetime. As Mauro Seed Company’s founder, David Mauro, a former software executive, recently told Civil Eats, “Seeds have the greatest ability to feed most people at the lowest cost. The seeds we gave [to our partners] last year will continue to produce food for years to come.”

Of course, the evolution social enterprise has brought its share of critics. Questions have risen about the longevity of the model as well as the actual degree of impact these types of businesses have, with some implying that buy-one-give-one ventures supply more of a temporary fix rather than a long-term solution for deep-rooted societal, economic, and environmental disparities.

Incorporating an educational component, teaching individuals to grow their own food, is an important operational aspect of the Mauro Seed Company. According to Mauro, that’s something of a challenge to achieve through domestic partnerships. More often than not, domestic organizations are more inclined to give food away versus educating those in need on how to obtain and maintain their own fruits and vegetables. While the young seed-giving company collaborates with area schools and churches, Mauro says that 75 percent of its donated seeds are ultimately sent to its international partners, organizations in places like Zimbabwe and Guatemala where there is a greater focus on educating people on how to grow food.

Mauro Seed Company’s majority support for its international partners is not for a lack of hungry people here in the United States. Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the United States, estimates that in 2015 more than 42 million Americans lived in food-insecure households. Other data, provided by DoSomething.org, suggest that approximately 23.5 million people in America live in food deserts, defined by the American Nutrition Association as “parts of [the] country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.

Despite the enormity of food insecurity in the U.S., efforts to equip those in most need with the tools and resources necessary to grow their own food are severely outpaced by the prevalence of the problem. There are just 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada combined, and certain studies have shown that even though policies have been implemented at the local level to improve access to healthy food in low-income and food-insecure areas, the actual health of residents doesn’t always improve as a result.

So, will the growth of buy-one-give-one companies, and particularly the newer niche of seed-giving, offer a renewed approach to addressing food insecurity in the U.S.? It will likely take a combined effort among organizations that are willing to partner and training programs that are locally tailored. Of course, recipients of the service will have to do their part as well.

Mauro’s confidence in the potential seed-giving has to help minimize hunger and empower the hungry is unwavering, noting that seeds can be used to address food insecurity not just on a national scale, but globally as well. “Once the giver disappears, the gift continues giving.”—Lindsay Walker