Finding Your Spark at Natural Products Expo West

Genius is initiative on fire.” -Holbrook Jackson

With a record-breaking 80,000 attendees this year, Natural Products Expo West is the creme of the crop for the natural industry. It is a weekend of moving talks, innovative talent, and incredible initiative set forth by leaders in our field. This is my industry – my nirvana. It lights me up, it sets me afire like no other industry ever has. Each year, I come home inspired by new ideas, my mind racing with how to make our food industry more sustainable, and how to empower others.

Whether you are a supplier, distributor, or natural food geek like myself, this show is sure to challenge you, nourish you, and leave you buzzing. Did I mention it’s FUN? (Cue the cheesy music video…)

Educational Events

On Friday and Saturday, I attended several incredible talks on farming, animal husbandry, and school reform. Here are some highlights from this year’s conference (March 9-12).

Mission Possible: Reimagining Scale & Humanely Raised Animal Agriculture (Sponsored by Applegate Natural & Organic Meats)

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As a meat lover, we must realize that change is always driven by the consumer. In the last few years, it has become better business to the right thing. People are seeking out certifications, demanding more human treatment, and voting with their dollar. However, while we are making progress, the factory farm system is incredibly efficient, due in part to the systems we ourselves created (in a demand for cheaper meat).

Modeling the current system to the rise of organics, the panel of industry leaders predicted a much more rapid adaptation of animal welfare standards. In an effort to avoid “humane washing” and other lofty claims, Applegate Farms has created a model that utilizes strict animal welfare standards, moving farmers away from industrial corporations. The company has created an open, transparent dialogue for meat consumption, outlining the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.

  • Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: Ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  • Freedom from Discomfort: Providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  • Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: Prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: Providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from Fear and Distress: Ensuring conditions and treatment, which avoid mental suffering.

“True sustainability is when planetary justice, animal justice, and human justice come together in a confluence.”

– Andrew Gunther, Executive Director, A Greener World

3 Disruptive Models that Deliver Healthy Food to Everyone, Everywhere 


This panel exposed the dedication and passion of three women-driven companies, all proving that having access to healthy, affordable food is a right, not a privilege. First up, the Chef Ann Foundation, an organization that helps schools take action so that every child has daily access to fresh, healthy food – from salad bars to food trucks and educational step-by-step guides. Actively supporting school districts nationwide through grant programs, their mission is “serve children healthy and delicious scratch-cooked meals made with fresh, whole food. ” To get your district involved, visit

Next up, a pay-what-you-can local eatery, “Feeding Our Community Ourselves” (FoCo Cafe) in Fort Collins, CO. In an effort to build community, the cafe provides nutritious and delicious meals regardless of one’s ability to pay, creating a community hub for farmers, the homeless, mayors, businessmen, etc. Instead of a cash register, a donation box is on the counter. Their motto: If you can give more, please pay it forward. If you have a little less, pay what you can.

“Connection is a primary need, we support all walks of life that enter our cafe. It is about building relationships with our community…”

– Kathleen Baumgardner, Founder FoCo Cafe

Canadian based Mesh Exchange takes the effort online, creating a food rescue marketplace, hoping to give food a second chance. Save Money. Reduce Waste. Feed More. The company will match safe and nutritious unsold food to secondary markets in an automated and intelligent way. Bravo.

Future of Farming: Cultivating the Next Generation of Growers 

A nine year old mushroom grower. Two fraternity brothers, growing mushrooms in their dorms. A “gangsta gardener” growing food curbside in South Central LA. These are the incredible stories you are witness to at Expo West. With an aging farming community (average U.S. farmer is 58), the youthful conversation focused on what’s coming up…for our future generations.

“To change community, you have to change the composition of the soil. We are the soil, we are carbon.”

– Ron Finley, Founder Ron Finely Project

We were first introduced to Te’Lario Watkins II, nine year old owner and founder of Tiger Mushroom Farms. The 9 year old entrepreneur discovered his green thumb in Cub Scouts, soon purchasing his first mushroom kit by fellow panelists Back to the Roots (talk about synergy!). With a surplus of mushrooms, he began selling at farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants…even a stint on the Steve Hardy show. Ladies and gents, he is the future of farming. Make sure to read his story at

Inspiring Te’Lario is Back to the Roots founders Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora. Discovering that mushrooms could grow entirely on spent coffee grounds, they turned their fraternity kitchen into a viable model for the future of food. Hoping to “undo food,” their are now taking their organic mushroom kits and creating stoneground breakfast cereal. Biodynamic Cocoa or Cinnamon Flakes anyone?!

Ron Finley, The Gangsta Gardener, is truly a visionary. Growing up in a food desert in South Central LA, he started planting vegetables in the curbside dirt strip next to his home. He soon sparked a revolution, planting in parkways and median strips throughout LA. Bringing food back to the street, he has quickly transformed communities nationwide. To learn more about his horticultural revolution, visit

Unleashed: The Surprising Power of Farmers to Transform Our Industry (Sponsored by Tillamook Creamery)

Farmer co-operatives. An insightful model that demands that farmers are more than pure suppliers or “marketing mascots.” At Tillamook Dairy Co-Op, farmers are the owners of the company, a 108-year old model with a proven track record. Utilizing farmers in all business decisions, the company is comprised of a Board of Directors, helping reaffirm trust in the food supply (one member, one vote – a great equalizer). In this model, CEO Patrick Criteser discusses three vital lessons to the successful co-operative model.

  1. Farmers unleash long term thinking, with a multi-generational mindset
  2. Farmers unleash the bullsh*t meter
  3. Farmers unleash a culture of stewardship, serving the next generation

“We cannot limit the role of the farmer in the business, we must expose their voice, and invite the next generation into our business model…”

– Patrick Criteser, CEO at Tillamook Dairy

Snack On…and On…

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Over 3,000 exhibitors. 80,000 attendees. Rows and rows…and rows of innovation. The convention should be coined “Expo Eats” – as I grazed my way through juices, sauces, coffee, kombuchas, elixirs, chocolate, noodles, hot dogs. You name it. This slideshow showcases some of my favorite products…stay thirsty (and hungry) my friends.

Omm. Namaste. Repeat.


One of the best parts of Expo West is the complimentary morning yoga. Whether exhibiting or walking around, the 12 hour days take a toll. Bringing some of the best talent in yoga, the sessions are followed by brand-sponsored breakfast. This year, Honest Tea, Maple Hill Creamery, Kashi, and Evolve sponsored some vinayasa flow. Or maybe your bliss can be found at the impromptu DJ sessions in the Anaheim Convention Center. DJ Drez threw down in the ACC, on behalf of Organic India. Yes, it was amazing.

2018 Predictions


Each year, the New Hope Network content and research team tracks the macro forces and related product trends, highlighting products and companies fueling growth for the future and creating positive change in food systems. Here are the 12 highlighted trends for 2018, as tracked by the New Hope team. For product details, visit

  • Trust Through Transparency With instant access to information comes an opportunity to open the door wide with a “we have nothing to hide” message
  • The Verified Brand – Brands with the right certifications from the right organizations have an instant advantage winning trust from consumers
  • Millennial Trust – New products are tapping into the trust Millennials place in nutrition as a first-choice health strategy
  • The Plant Revolution – Whether for heart health, climate health, ecological efficiency or animal welfare, plants are fast becoming man’s best friend
  • Feed Me – Feeding more people with less land and water calls for multifaceted innovation
  • Regeneration – Doing no harm is an imperative, but healing the harm that’s already occurred is among the richest opportunities for agriculture and the food industry
  • Stress and Sleep Solutions – Power up, power down, balance along the way. Can we all do that? Innovative brands are finding a way
  • Sugar Vilified – Sugar is the No. 1 bad guy in food and beverages these days, and innovative companies are finding clever ways to cut it out or at least cut it down.
  •  Food Allergy Friendly – An allergy epidemic is upon us. Bad news for children, good news for innovators.
  • The Purposeful Brand – Aligning with a social or environmental cause can deepen a company’s ethical roots – and the closer that cause is to the heart of the business, the more lasting the impression.
  • The B Corp Revolution – Socially and environmentally conscious businesses embrace B Corp certification as a way to formalize and verify their commitment to using business as a force for good.
  • Waste Not, Want Not – When vast food supplies flood landfills while populations go hungry, it’s time for innovative solutions that solve both the food waste and food injustice problems.

So…until next year, may you find your spark! Here’s to undoing food at another great Expo West.


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