Rice, Beans and Saffron: Fighting Hunger while Celebrating Community Diversity

by Diana Drake

This month’s Future of the Business World podcast will get you thinking about the deep connections between food and culture. Massachusetts high school junior Noah Sheldon is the founder of Inclusive Eats, a nonprofit that helps stock local food pantries with staples that people who are food-insecure in his diverse community would find in their home countries. This mission is a true extension of Noah’s passions, including his own Brazilian heritage and cuisine, and his love for entrepreneurship, which he explored during Wharton Global Youth’s Essentials of Entrepreneurship program. 

Be sure to click on the arrow above to listen to our conversation! An edited transcript appears below. 

Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Our Global Youth podcast features high school students from around the world, all thinking, acting and dreaming entrepreneurially. Talking to them each month gives us a chance to explore the roots and branches of entrepreneurship, while also learning new things about the business world from the power of partnerships to the sources of startup capital. With more than 40 Future of the Business World conversations in the books, I’ve collected enough observational data to draw some conclusions. For example, high school students often discover innovative purpose at the intersection of their passions and the world’s problems.

Today’s guest fits that very profile. Noah Sheldon, who studied with Wharton Global Youth last summer in our Essentials of Entrepreneurship program, is the founder of the nonprofit Inclusive Eats. He’s going to tell us all about his unique approach to fighting food insecurity.

Noah, welcome to Future of the Business World!

Noah Sheldon.

Noah Sheldon: Thank you so much for inviting me, Diana. It’s an honor to be here.

Wharton Global Youth: Tell us more about yourself. Where do you go to school? And what is your life like in Massachusetts?

Noah: Of course, so my name is Noah Sheldon. I am a Brazilian American. Brazilian on my mom’s side, American on my dad’s, originally from Kansas. I am an entrepreneur at heart. And I am also currently a junior at Woburn Memorial High School in Massachusetts. And the best way I can describe life in Massachusetts is exciting. That’s because there’s just so many people from so many different backgrounds of life. It’s truly a melting pot of culture. And I’m grateful to be raised around this. I like to say it shows in a lot of the things that I pursue.

Wharton Global Youth: Is your school close to a big city? Are you near Boston?

Noah: About a 15-minute drive? So, pretty close to Boston.

Wharton Global Youth: We’re here to talk today about your nonprofit Inclusive Eats, which provides culturally diverse and familiar ingredients to local food pantries. Your tagline is “Celebrating Cultures. Nourishing Neighbors.” What is your origin story? Why this focus on both culture and feeding those in need?

Noah: For Inclusive Eats, I’d say it all started when I was catering for a local nonprofit, because that’s something I like to do in my free time. I love cooking. I cater authentic Brazilian food for free with nonprofits. After a particular event, I went to go wash up in the restroom. On the way, I passed a food pantry and what I saw frankly shocked me because I saw walls and walls of aluminum cans. And frankly, they didn’t look appetizing. Being a Brazilian, there were not a lot of options that I saw that would be used in my own household. And knowing that my community is incredibly diverse, especially now with a lot of immigrant families coming, I thought to myself, do people actually want to eat this food?

So, from there I started to do more research, and the numbers shocked me. About one in three BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) families suffer from food insecurity. And studies show that immigrant families are more likely to need these food services, like SNAP or food pantries. I noticed that not a lot of people were talking about the cultural relevance at food pantries. When I founded Inclusive Eats, I sought to change that by not only partnering with pantries and providing them with these ingredients, but also becoming an advocate for an issue that isn’t talked about enough.

Wharton Global Youth: Really interesting. Let’s get into the operations side for a minute. How do you source culturally relevant foods? And how do you know what food to source? Do you do your market research?

Noah: I’d say the method of sourcing is a mix. First priority, we try to source culturally relevant ingredients at local markets and our community, giving back to those families that are actually running these businesses. From there, we also go to grocery stores. A lot of them are adding cultural aisles with a lot of good options that are easy to access. And lastly, since we are a nonprofit, we have an employee identification number. And with that, we can use that information to sign up for wholesale shopping. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with restaurant depot brands, but we shop wholesale ingredients at the same place where restaurants get their food for cheap prices in bulk, which is great for getting large amounts of ingredients.

In terms of how we know what foods to source, we pride ourselves on our board members, as we are very diverse. I’m Brazilian myself, we have two more Brazilian members, someone from Haiti, someone from the Middle East, another from Eastern Europe. This wide perspective from our board allows us to understand what certain cultures need in terms of ingredients. But we also do market research through a lot of the resources that are already out there. One example is a community food needs assessment. A lot of communities do this through nonprofits and their studies done by cities to assess exactly what residents need in terms of food by looking at certain demographics within the city. So that’s a great way to understand exactly who we’re trying to serve with our mission.

Wharton Global Youth: Is your model completely donation-based? Or do you have to raise money through various means?

Noah: A bit of a mix, for sure. We do do individual donations. But we’ve also received grants through different ways. One is a pitch competition, where we pitched in a contest between other youth groups, and we received a grant in return for doing pretty well there. And we’ve also done cultural bake sales at school to make a quick buck. And we’ve partnered with some local restaurants too. They have one night where 20% of their profits will go back to us. That’s a great way to get some funding, too. So, definitely a mix in terms of funding.

Wharton Global Youth: How do you then distribute to the food pantries? Can you give us an example of one that you work with?

Noah: Before we start distributing to food pantries, we communicate with them directly through partnerships. We meet with them, usually several times, just building close relationships with them and telling them about the work we do and how exactly we’re going to help them. And we distribute to our partner pantries, while keeping in mind the communities they’re serving.

One example of a pantry that we work with is called Bread of Life. They are, I believe, the second largest distributor in the state. They have a very wide network of pantries. And they have been great to us. Having these collaborations to expand our mission is really what it’s all about. It’s just getting people to know about this issue. Because we are a small organization, we don’t have a lot of power. So, it’s good to be an advocate to people who do. I think collaboration is very important in that aspect of distributing.

Wharton Global Youth: What does a culturally relevant food pantry look like? What are some of the ingredients and offerings you might see on those shelves?

Noah: Like I said, there [are] so many cultures, but it really does depend on the type of community the pantry is located in. Our main area has a lot of Latino and especially now Haitian groups. So, pantries around our county would have a lot of rice, [a staple] in so many countries and cultures — jasmine, basmati, a lot of different varieties of [rice]. Also, legumes, beans and lentils. Within our team, we have Middle Eastern, so lentils [are] a good ingredient. And noodles. Just 15 minutes north, you have a community that has a lot more Asian background. So, having different types of noodles can cater to that group as well. And cooking oils are also super important — a wide variety, but ghee is a good one because a lot of cultures use that. And spices and herbs. Some examples because there’s so many [are] turmeric, cumin, curry powders [and] saffron. But also, a lot of different cultures like to use those bouillon cubes, those little chicken-flavored cubes. So that is great. And it’s non-perishable. The list could go on and on. There’s a lot I could cover, but it really does depend on where the pantry is located for it to be culturally relevant.

Wharton Global Youth: Absolutely. Can you share a story that illustrates the hands-on work of your nonprofit? And maybe a time that you were able to meet and speak with the families you’re helping?

Noah: One instance was around Christmas holiday season. A lot of the pantries were busy. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the issue, but Boston is a sanctuary city for a lot of migrant families. So, they’re staying at Section Eight housing within hotels. During this time on Christmas Eve, we brought dinners to each family staying there, I think it was around 28 at this one hotel. It was such a great experience. Although there was a language barrier with Spanish, we did actually talk to them in Spanish. I think the No. 1 determinant of our success as an organization were the smiles. Everyone was smiling. And it just really demonstrates our impact on a personal level. It’s what keeps us going.

Wharton Global Youth: That leads to a lot of questions. Where were these families from? What kind of food did you deliver to them and who prepared the food?

Noah: Most of them were Haitian and some of them were Venezuelan, too. And in terms of the food that we gave, we wanted to collect their interest, especially with, you know, a theme around the Christmas season. So, we got each family a Christmas ham that they were so excited to get. And they could just prepare that themselves. They had a kitchenette in their hotel rooms. It was just a great experience overall.

Wharton Global Youth: You weren’t preparing actual meals? You were bringing them prepared [foods]. You didn’t cook? Do you ever cook?

Noah: I’ve run into problems with permits and distribution. And we don’t really have a commercial kitchen. But we actually do have one event coming up this Sunday and this does have a commercial kitchen. It’s a cultural celebration; a community dinner with a lot of the new migrant families — connecting people with changemakers in our community. There’s going to be a bunch of food being made: Haitian food, Brazilian food, and even some American food – a real blend of culture. We do have a permit-certified kitchen for that event.

“Food is more than just something on our plate, it’s a part of our culture. It’s so important to look at it through that lens. Food is a part of people’s identity, and that dignifies them.” –Noah Sheldon, Founder, Inclusive Eats

Wharton Global Youth: Tell me your favorite Brazilian food. You keep mentioning Brazilian food, and I know it’s a part of your heritage. So, what does that look like?

Noah: I think my top choice has to be picanha. It’s within the realm of Brazilian Churrasco, which is Brazilian barbecue. People roast it over coals. And it’s just the best. It brings people together. A lot of different restaurants serve it too. It’s gotta be my favorite. And it’s actually what I do when I cater during the summer, because it’s good to feed a lot of people. It is a classic for sure.

Wharton Global Youth: Since starting your nonprofit, and you mentioned this a minute ago, sanctuary cities like Boston have been flooded with new migrant families coming to the U.S. Inclusive Eats’s mission seems more relevant and powerful than ever. Do you agree? And how has this influenced the work that you’re doing?

Noah: I 100% agree. It does make our mission more relevant than ever. And it really does influence the work that we do, because one of the main determinants we look at is demographics. And with these new people coming, in terms of what they need, demographics are changing. It’s really important to keep that in mind when trying to assess what ingredients pantries are going to need to serve these people. So, it has had a definite influence on our mission.

Wharton Global Youth: Do you plan to expand? And could you potentially serve new markets with growing needs, including towns close to cities like New York and Chicago, some of those hotspots?

Noah: We have one plan underway, which is with a fellow Wharton Global Youth alumnus. He’s one of my great friends I made last year. He is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We find that they also have similar needs there too. So, that branch is being developed as of right now, with the launch coming soon. Very excited! But we’re definitely open to having more locations, like New York and Chicago. That would be awesome, too.

Wharton Global Youth: As you mentioned, you participated last summer in Wharton Global Youth’s Essentials of Entrepreneurship program. How did this help to advance your entrepreneurial thinking around Inclusive Eats?

Noah: I would say it was so significant. I learned so much, especially about the passion and what you do in terms of an entrepreneur. And I think you don’t really become an entrepreneur until you’re passionate about the work that you’re doing. I really love how that was emphasized into what we learned there. But No. 1, the best thing I got out of Essentials of Entrepreneurship were the connections that I made, the friendships. I still talk to so many people from this program. Like I said, they’re all like-minded, which is why we have an avenue now to expand our mission. And that’s solely based on the program and the people that I met there. I like to say that I found my tribe. So many people were ambitious and so many people wanted to create change. It was such a great experience.

Wharton Global Youth: What have you learned about people through your experiences with food and culture?

Noah: I’ve learned so much. I was talking to a Woburn resident from my town, one of the people that we were helping at an event, and they told me some words that stuck with me. Food is more than just something on our plate. It’s a part of our culture. It’s so important to look at it through that lens. Food is a part of people’s identity, and that dignifies them. It is a part of their culture and it can bring people together, which is so important.

Wharton Global Youth: All right, let’s end with our lightning round. Please try to answer these questions as quickly as possible.

Something about you that would surprise us?

Noah: I am an identical twin.

Wharton Global Youth: And is your twin involved in Inclusive Eats?

Noah: Yes, yes, he is. He is the chief of operations. Very, very crucial part of the team. Love him.

Wharton Global Youth: What is your favorite food?

Noah: As I said before, Picanha. It’s a Brazilian Churrasco staple and is so good. I recommend anyone to try it. It’s the best.

Wharton Global Youth: Finish this sentence for us: The entrepreneurial mindset is…?

Noah: About taking risks. I think that’s super important.

Wharton Global Youth: A unique food ingredient that you’ve discovered in the past year?

Noah: I think one in Brazilian Feijoada that I found out about is that it used to be slave food and they used the scraps of the pork or the pig. So, hooves, ears, pig tail — and it is still delicious. That’s definitely something unique.

Wharton Global Youth: You are passionate about community diversity because?

Noah: Because I grew up in a diverse community. I know that’s a little [obvious]. But I think that’s why it’s such a central part of what I do day to day.

Wharton Global Youth: What would you be caught binge-watching at midnight?

Noah: That new Avatar show on Netflix. I haven’t finished it yet, but I do want to finish it soon. I am very involved in that.

Wharton Global Youth: You’re starting your own business-themed talk show. Who is your first guest and why?

Noah: Outside the realms of reality, I think someone who displays a lot of courage in what they’ve done with business would be Oskar Schindler.  Schindler’s List was a great movie. And to me, he represents how you could use business for good because a lot of people use it for bad. I think that would be my go-to. I know he’s not currently with us, but Oskar Schindler would be my top pick.

Wharton Global Youth: All right. Noah, thank you for joining us on Future of the Business World!

Noah: Thank you so much for having me.

Conversation Starters

What has Noah Sheldon’s research revealed about the importance of culturally relevant food choices for the food insecure?

Do you live in a diverse community? Would Inclusive Eats be an important addition to your local food pantries? What do you appreciate about this approach to addressing food insecurity?

Noah says that the diversity on Inclusive Eats’ board “allows us to understand what certain cultures need in terms of ingredients.” How does this support the concept of diverse boards across business?

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