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Firm aims to shake up food-supply chain

Rachel Greenberger, director of Food Sol (right), came up with the idea of a company that’s similar to a think tank, but centered on action. Rachel Greenberger, director of Food Sol (right), came up with the idea of a company that’s similar to a think tank, but centered on action. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2011

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WELLESLEY - When a superstore moves into a neighborhood, owners of the corner bodega and other small shops cower in the shadows of the behemoth, according to Food Sol, an ambitious two-month-old start-up at Babson College that says things don’t have to be that way.

In an ideal world, executives of the superstore might sit down with the neighborhood grocer, the local farmer, and a middle manager from a fish processing plant. At the end of a discussion, each would emerge with a better understanding of what their counterparts face in getting food to market.

It’s a strategy called the “uncommon table,’’ and it’s the first step to finding solutions to such global food problems as safety and scarcity, said Rachel Greenberger, cofounder of Food Sol.

Located at Babson’s Social Innovation Lab, the company seeks to identify how so-called food deserts - geographical areas without access to a grocery store or fresh food - are formed, and how to make healthy food sustainable for all.

“It’s a partnership that’s a face-to-face model. We are saying, ‘Let’s leave our brands at the door and act upon this,’ ’’ Greenberger said. “Can we bring it down to a few people sitting around a table, and as best as possible curate a conversation driven toward valuable solutions?’’

Greenberger, a 33-year-old Babson MBA graduate who studied food-system dynamics and consumer behavior in the sustainable food movement, came up with the concept for a company similar to a think tank, but centered on action. By creating a digital map to pinpoint food-related issues, Food Sol intends to highlight pressing topics such as food deserts and fair trade, linking experts in the field with would-be entrepreneurs to ignite working relationships.

“Right now, everything in the food world is fragmented and complicated and confusing,’’ she said. “This is a tool helping you navigate the issues you care about, an awareness tool on a Web platform.’’

Cheryl Kiser, who is executive director of the school’s innovation lab, Greenberger’s faculty adviser, and a Food Sol co-creator, described the map as “a GPS system to map the dilemmas in food so people, business or consumer, can figure out where to go for help.’’

Food Sol intends to foster “a way into thinking about innovation in the food-supply chain, whether it’s creating more cooperatives or building agribusiness in Fall River,’’ Kiser said. “We are a laboratory where people can come and engage in conversation.’’

Companies will pay to engage, Kiser said. She hopes to involve such companies as Cargill Inc., Monsanto Co. , PepsiCo , and the Coca-Cola Co.

Babson is becoming “more thoughtful about the range of consequences that go beyond purely economical outcomes into thinking about societal outcomes and sustainability,’’ said Babson president Leonard Schlesinger, a vegan who helped Food Sol get off the ground by tapping a friend, Michael Bronner, to fund the project. He is best known as the founder of the Boston advertising agency Digitas.

“It’s an entrepreneurial approach to bringing partners together and leaving their brands at the door,’’ said Bronner, who donated an undisclosed amount to launch the company. “It’s not about pointing fingers.’’

Food Sol is sponsoring Food Day, an event backed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to highlight food issues, from environmental to social. On Oct. 24, Babson’s senior executive chef, Gary Symolon, who sources meals for Babson students from eight New England farms, will serve a locally sourced lunch outdoors so students can be “closer to the earth.’’ Farmers and food suppliers from the area will be on hand to discuss innovations in the industry.

Symolon, who works for Sodexo Inc., an institutional food supplier, jumped at the chance to partner with Food Sol.

“We were almost in awe,’’ he said.

“We are food; our business practices revolve around purchasing food in a sustainable manner. It’s nice to see that they are embracing and bringing more awareness to food.’’