Healing Our Local Food System: Our Q&A with Wen-Jay Ying, the CEO and Founder of Local Roots

This month we got the chance to speak with Wen-Jay Ying, the CEO and founder of Local Roots, a business that she started at the age of 26. Local Roots is a modernized CSA/customized farmers market that uses a subscription service to bring farm-fresh veggies, eggs, fruit and meat directly to your door. The service also allow customers to host a Local Roots market at their business or office where one of the reps from Local Roots will deliver the items, manage the market and clean up at the end. The mission behind the business is to create a community of informed consumers, increase sustainability in the food industry and make a positive impact on the world. Check out our full conversation with Wen-Jay below!

Tell us about your background. I grew up on Long Island, went to school at Boston University for psychology and then moved back to NYC after college. Ever since I was a kid, I always knew I would end up in NYC and for the first couple years, I was in a lot of different bands and active in the underground music scene. Food was never too important to me growing up. Like most kids, I was a picky eater. I hated vegetables except for cucumbers and carrots. I would pretend to eat bok choy but then hide it in a napkin and throw it out.  I definitely thought tomatoes were gross. Little did I know, it’s because the tomatoes I ate growing up were flavorless and unripe. Now I find that food is the best way to learn about my parents’ childhood in Taiwan. They’ll talk about walking to school with siblings and stopping at a food cart to get little treats or what their parents packed them for lunch. I love connecting with my family and heritage through food.

How did you get into the food industry? A friend sent me an article about the decline of supermarkets in NYC, therefore pushing New Yorkers to buy food from bodegas which were full of preservatives and unhealthy. It really bothered me that there weren’t enough alternative options for grocery shopping and that we were forced into a vicious cycle of bad food and bad health. The article inspired me to enroll in AmeriCorps at a food justice nonprofit in NYC. It was there that I learned about local farms and Community Supported Agriculture. I fell in love with the way these grassroots markets brought people together and created personable and special ways to access groceries. Working at AmeriCorps in 2008, I visited my first farm, just to check in, but being there was a very special experience for me. Being on the farm and having an authentic, home-cooked meal as well as seeing how passionate the woman who owned the farm was about what she did was the first time that I thought about food differently. Most people don’t know the source of the products that they use but with food you can literally see where the food comes from and whose growing it, which is so unique. It felt really important to me to have that connection with my food.

How did Local Roots begin/how did you come up with the idea for the business? Local Roots started in 2011 when I was crying on the phone with my mom on Court Street. I had been working as a liaison in NYC for a farm called Red Jacket Orchards that I had been introduced to via AmeriCorps. It had decided to go corporate and wanted to change the entire staff. I was without work and my dream job did not exist anywhere in the world. I wanted to manage produce markets that were more convenient for the eater and the grower. These one stop shop markets would be fun, approachable, and educational. Because this job didn’t exist anywhere in the world, my mom suggested I start my own business. 2 weeks later, Local Roots NYC was founded. 3 months later, we had our first markets and about 150 weekly members.

What was the first farm that agreed to work with you for Local Roots? What was the process like going from concept to that first “yes”? One of the first farms that we worked with was a vegetable farm based in Warwick, NY. I had spent a few months volunteering at other CSAs, working at farmers markets and a food justice non-profit before Local Roots so I had some credibility when I approached this farmer. I told her that I wanted to try a new business model and she was game.Within our first season, the hurricane had devastated a majority of her farm and she worked with partnering farms to provide us with produce while I hosted fundraisers to help rebuild her farm. But before I got my first “yes” from her, I got about 4 “no”s mostly due to logistical reasons, like not being able to deliver to NYC on the days we needed or not being able to deliver the quantities that we wanted. It’s still hard to find farms to work with because we want the best quality from innovative farms that are good at communicating with us but we always run into delivery issues. Some farms can only come into the city on the weekends or don’t have enough staff to deliver on specific days that we need. A lot of other companies compensate for this issue by storing the meat, produce and eggs in a warehouse but fresh items is what makes Local Roots unique. Currently we work with about 10 different farms to source our products.

What made you interested in agriculture and sustainability specifically? Food is everything; it connects us to ourselves, our land, our farmers and our culture. It’s a beautiful virtuous cycle. Growing up on Long Island I didn’t spend too much time in nature but for some reason, I felt pure joy and beauty the first time I visited that farm in 2008. It was the perfect balance to an urban lifestyle and it felt very spiritual. Listening to farmers talk about their craft, I’m moved by their passion and it’s what keeps me fighting for local, sustainable growers each and every day. Local agriculture and sustainability makes me feel empowered. The decisions and changes that we make on a local level are tangible ways to help the Earth on a macro level.

Local Roots Bag

What’s an initiative that you’re working on now (either with Local Roots or personally) that you’re really passionate about? Why? I’m working towards empowering other New Yorkers to start their own Local Roots market. This is super important because in NYC, convenience is one of the most important factors to a consumer. We need to have markets in every neighborhood to make local, sustainably grown produce accessible to all New Yorkers, but our team is too small to manage this type of growth. Therefore, if we can empower other New Yorkers or businesses to start a Local Roots market, we can grow our movement to support local farms and bring high quality produce to New Yorkers. With Local Roots and also my personal life, I’m always looking to find more outlets to speak about the importance of local food. I’d like to be our generation’s spokeswoman for local agriculture, food transparency, and cooking at home. The conversation feels one dimensional to me and I want to elevate how we speak about these topics and offer people real, tangible reasons why good, local food is beneficial to their life.

What impact do you hope Local Roots will have on the local food community as well as how consumers interact with their food? I hope to make local agriculture, cooking at home, and transparency around food fun, easy, and sexy AF. I want people to feel empowered in their food choices and to be curious: What vegetable is this? How does it look in the field? How do I cook it? Why does it matter if it’s local? What do all these food labels at the store mean? Local Roots is a successful company if more New Yorkers are cooking at home with fresh, local ingredients and if more regenerative farmers in our region have financial security in their profession.

What’s the biggest challenge of being a woman-owned business? It’s only a challenge if you think it’s a challenge. Being a woman is powerful; you just need to acknowledge that and view obstacles as motivators.

What’s been the most surprising part of running your own business? It never gets easier. It’s about finding success and happiness in the small and big wins as well as the everyday tasks. An everyday task like being at the markets is inspiring to me because people have genuine happiness for the food that we’re providing. There aren’t that many products where the customer is telling you “this changed my life” so seeing that response is really moving.

What motivates you as a business owner and a female entrepreneur? I want to build something beautiful and authentic that supports our local farmers and helps my fellow New Yorkers. As farming becomes modified through pesticides, the health of our land and the health of our bodies are at risk. We must heal our local food system.

As a founder, what are some things that you think about as a leader/actions you take to motivate your team? I think about how important it is to bring people fresh, nutrient dense produce and that good work is a form of personal growth and empowerment. I find that my team cares as much about these issues as I do, so making an impact on the local food community is a big motivation to all of us to continue our hard work. However, I do like to give customer feedback to my staff when I get it to remind them of the influence their work has. There’s so much going on behind the scenes that people don’t see, it’s nice to remind them that their hustle is changing the lives of hundreds of people.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give your younger self when you were first starting out in the food industry? Find a great team to support you early on and price accordingly for the quality of your products and service while still being approachable.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten from another woman? You’re already doing the work, just keep doing it.

What advice would you give to other women looking to get into the food industry? Be passionate and provide something authentic to the world. The food industry is really hard and profit margins are small, so you need to find happiness in the work. Luckily, the people in local agriculture are amazing, kind and inspirational!

 

 

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