The new corporate wellness program: On-site gardens

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 14, 2014

Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s garden in Northfield. The produce is donated.

Sterling Bay Cos., a real estate development firm, promotes a healthy lifestyle for its 62 employees with an on-site gym, training and yoga sessions, and an in-house chef who cooks fresh, seasonal fare for breakfast and lunch every day.

Now management is adding an amenity to give its staff another health and productivity boost: an organic vegetable garden. Last month, Organic Gardener Ltd., a Glencoe-based operation that creates organic vegetable gardens for corporate, residential and nonprofit clients, began designing a 30-by-40-foot raised garden area that will be installed soon on Sterling Bay’s new, lounge-like rooftop deck at its West Loop headquarters.

The firm’s chef will choose the plants he wants for his culinary creations. Staffers will be able to take breaks and work the garden if they want to get away from the hectic office buzz for a bit, says Russ Cora, vice president of leasing.

“We’re conscious of trying to be healthier and make this a cool place to work—this garden is part of those efforts,” Mr. Cora says.

A small but growing number of Chicago-area companies are tapping gardening experts to help them grow fresh produce on site. Some employers are establishing gardens to foster healthier lifestyles by emphasizing nutritious, fresh foods for their workers. Employees can get outside to bend and stretch while tending the garden during breaks. Additional benefits include bonding among workers, and stress relief that can contribute to improved productivity when they get back to their desk, according to Stephanie Spronk, a senior vice president leading the health transformation team at Aon Hewitt, a global employee-benefits firm with headquarters in Lincolnshire.

“We have such a sedentary workforce that any type of movement is good,” Ms. Spronk says. “Also, when gardening is done in a group setting, you have a social connection with people that’s good for workplace communication and team-building.”

Employees volunteer in Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s garden in Northfield. The produce is donated. Photos provided by Kraft Foods Group Inc.

Employees at Savino Del Bene, a global logistics and freight-forwarding company in northwest suburban Des Plaines, pitched in one afternoon about three years ago to set up six large raised beds and plant fruit and vegetable seedlings. The company, which leases its building in an industrial complex, got permission from the owners to plant the beds adjacent to an outdoor patio area.

Before long, many of the 55 workers started eating more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables because they were sharing the harvest in the communal kitchen, says Wendy Irwin, CEO of Yellow Tractor, a for-profit social enterprise based in Wilmette that helped Savino Del Bene build its garden. Caprese salads with fresh-picked tomatoes and basil and store-bought mozzarella were a big hit.

Since each raised bed is overseen by a different department, employees started annual competitions to see which garden yields the most pounds of produce, Ms. Irwin says.

What’s more, staffers who spend much of the day in front of computers and phones leave their desk for brief periods and work in the garden for stress relief when they need it, she says.


In addition to helping companies such as Savino Del Bene establish edible gardens and teach them about nutrition and wellness, the firm has a nonprofit arm. The Yellow Tractor Project assists corporations in sponsoring organic vegetable gardens in communities of need.

“Gardening is the new gym in employee wellness programs,” Ms. Irwin says. “You may not burn as many calories as you would at the gym but you get the same stress relief, and it takes less time to get there if the garden is right where you work.”

Ted Kopacz, a machine shop foreman, works in the garden behind Serfilco’s Northbrook building. Photo: Kendall Karmanian

Serfilco, a manufacturer of industrial pumping and filtration equipment, had Organic Gardener set up an 800-square-foot vegetable garden behind its Northbrook building four years ago to get its 50-plus employees thinking about good nutrition, says James J. Berg, vice president of Serfilco, a division of Service Filtration Corp., a family-owned business.

“At the very least, we hope our employees would take advantage of free organic vegetables to take home,” he says. He sends out regular emails to let workers know what’s ripe for picking. “Eating organic food is good for their wellness. A healthier employee misses work less often, which is better for them and better for us.”

Typically a few workers emerge as (nonpaid) primary caretakers of the company garden. At Serfilco, it’s Mr. Berg, who often comes in on weekends with his daughter.

Most of Organic Gardener’s work comes from residential gardens and educational programs. Since 2005, the firm has built about a dozen gardens for corporations and nonprofits. At Yellow Tractor, where a 4-by-8-foot bed and educational support starts at $5,000 to $10,000, the firm expects 75 percent of its work this year will be for corporations.


Kraft Foods Group Inc. created a lush, 8,000-square-foot vegetable garden in 2011 (pictured above) with the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden; it donates all the produce to food pantries and local shelters, says Leah Bradford, associate director of community involvement. Close to 500 employees at the Northfield complex have volunteered in the garden since its inception to contribute to the company’s ethos of community service, she says.


This year the food giant estimates some 200 employee volunteers will spend time in the garden either on lunch breaks or during regular volunteer days where one or two hours is set aside for gardening in teams. About 30,000 pounds of produce has been donated by Kraft from its garden.

“Our primary mission for the garden is to fight hunger, but it’s a great way for our employees to get to know each other and develop relationships in a nontypical work environment,” Ms. Bradford says.

At Sterling Bay, Mr. Cora says the organic garden planned for its headquarters is a pilot that could be replicated across Chicago’s corporate skyline if it’s the hit they expect. The firm owns 8 million square feet of office space in the city, and they’re installing many rooftop decks in old loft buildings they’re renovating.

– Judith Nemes

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Food pantry food from Eataly? Thank this computer nerd

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 3, 2014

AR-140629861.jpg&maxw=300&q=100&cci_ts=20140703140211Rajesh Karmani always was a spare-time do-gooder. Now it’s his job.

Mr. Karmani had planned on earning a doctorate in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and jetting off to Silicon Valley to join Google Inc. But on his way to campus each morning, he would stop by an Einstein Bros. Bagels for breakfast. One day, the franchisee shared his frustration over throwing away fresh food every day when nearby soup kitchens would be thrilled to serve it to their patrons.

So in 2012, a year before completing his Ph.D. studies, he launched a for-profit business called Zero Percent. Its product is an app that permits restaurants to list their leftover food and sends text alerts to food pantries about what’s available. The cloud-based program tracks donations so restaurants can record them as tax deductions.

The Einstein Bros. franchise logged $1,000 in charitable donations in less than a year and expects to hit $3,000 this year, says Mr. Karmani, Zero Percent’s CEO.

An estimated 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Our goal is to take 40 percent food waste and bring it down to zero percent by feeding hungry people,” says Mr. Karmani, 31, who was born in a region of Pakistan where food shortages are commonplace.

Feeding America, a national nonprofit based in Chicago, licensed the platform last year and rolled it out in 10 cities. (The deal has since ended.) In Chicago, more than 30 businesses have become food donors, including Eataly, Hannah’s Bretzel, Sopraffina Marketcaffe and Olivia’s Market. Nationally, food-service giant Sodexo USA Inc. signed up in June. Food partners pay $30 monthly, but eventually the fee structure will shift to a percentage of net tax savings, he says.

More than 25 nonprofits in Chicago receive donations through Zero Percent, including Franciscan Outreach in Wicker Park and the Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop. About 1,000 pounds of food is donated each day in Chicago; that’s expected to rise to 10,000 pounds daily by year-end, Mr. Karmani projects.

The Goddess & Grocer gives away mostly prepared foods, such as salads and desserts, says Meghan Shank, marketing and product development manager at Bucktown-based Goddess Restaurant Group. “We’ve also been enjoying the perks of the partnership by marketing our green initiatives to customers,” she says.

Mr. Karmani started the business with $15,000 in savings. He moved the company to Chicago last fall when it was accepted into Impact Engine’s 16-week accelerator program. In exchange for a 7 percent ownership of the startup, Impact Engine gave Zero Percent $25,000 and guidance. In June, he received $220,000 from angel investors.

“I love Raj’s passion,” says Chuck Templeton, Impact Engine’s chairman. “He’s trying to tackle a massive problem that’s daunting to anyone, but he’s got the audacity to try to make it happen.”

– Judith Nemes

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Clean Energy Trust begins $2.3 million fundraising effort

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 1, 2014

Can Clean Energy Trust raise $2.3 million in matching funds for a new Illinois clean tech investment fund announced last week? No problem, says Nicholas Pritzker, co-founder of the nonprofit group and a member of its board.

The four-year-old Chicago organization, which mentors early stage companies in the renewable energy sector across nine Midwestern states, will manage a new $2.3 million revolving equity fund established by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. One condition of the funding is the trust’s agreement to match the government support, for a combined total of $4.6 million.

“There’s been a sea change in awareness of the necessity of these (renewable energy) technologies, and that’s why I’m confident we’ll raise the matching funds we need,” asserts Mr. Pritzker. “People understand this is about national security, climate change, pollution and health issues.”

Mr. Pritzker won’t name expected donors, except to say that he plans to give to the fund, as do family members through the Pritzker Foundation.

In addition, Clean Energy Trust raises money throughout the year and already has earmarked some of those dollars to the new fund, says Amy Francetic, the trust’s executive director.

The new fund will support an Illinois-only business challenge on Oct. 28, Ms. Francetic says. An independent panel of judges will decide which of the finalists will walk away with convertible notes ranging from $100,000 to $500,000. The entire $4.6 million fund will be distributed to startups by the end of 2015, she says.

The organization has boosted its visibility primarily with the Clean Energy Challenge it hosts every spring showcasing early stage clean tech startups and student-led finalists. The trust, which grooms these teams for the showdown with the help of outside advisers, intends to run the upcoming challenge in a similar fashion for the Illinois-designated fund.

What’s different about this upcoming challenge is the criteria for applicants.The state requires that startups be located in Illinois and be further along in their business formation than the typical early stage firms that compose the lineup of the trust’s annual spring challenge. These participants must have a demonstrated revenue stream or established funding source and products or services already commercially available, Ms. Francetic explains.

Clean Energy Challenge winners have received $1.2 million over the years, and some 60 companies the organization is tracking have so far raised a combined total of $42 million, she says.

For example, NuMat Technologies Inc., a 2012 winner, has raised over $2 million and now has an office in Skokie with a handful of employees.

“We’re patient, too,” Ms. Francetic says. “Part of the reason we’re structured as a nonprofit is that these aren’t tech companies that grow quickly. This is a sector that includes deep science and strong engineering. We’re hopeful that in the next two to five years we’ll see some good exits.”

Mr. Pritzker concedes that it took a couple of years to understand what direction Clean Energy Trust should take. “Now it has crystallized and we have a good strategy” with the challenges and ongoing mentoring and financing advice and connections.

– Judith Nemes

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