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UME x Local Roots: The Future of Food Is Regenerative

Our modern food system is responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions (EPA, 2010). We are losing soil up to 100 times faster than it is forming (IPCC Report, UN, 2019). In 2019, the tropics lost close to 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every single minute, most of it in the name of industrial agriculture (WWF, 2020).

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When UME thinks about building a new, abundant economy where we can all thrive, we see sustainable agriculture at the center. After all, what could be more essential and more foundational than the food we eat?

So last year when Local Roots approached UME, we were all in. Our team helped them elevate their business, brand and website so they could connect more New Yorkers with sustainable family farmers and farm-fresh food.

The other day, we had the pleasure of catching up with Local Root’s fearless founder and CEO, Wen-Jay Ying, and Director of Programming & Community Engagement, Camryn Hellwarth, to dig into the future of our food system and what it was like working with an agency for the first time.

Tell us about Local Roots. How did it all start?

Wen-Jay: When I started Local Roots in 2011, it was all about creating a community that I wanted to be a part of in New York City — an achievable utopia with small town energy in the big city. And finding a convenient and approachable way to get more New Yorkers high quality, nutrient-dense produce.

What’s wrong with the conventional way we get our food? What’s the cost of the status quo system?

Wen-Jay: Well, commercial agriculture strips the land of all nutrients and depletes the soil for generations. It uses pesticides and toxic chemicals, which are harmful both for local ecosystems and for our bodies. And it’s packaged in a lot of plastic, which is a very problematic petroleum based product. So it’s not healthy for the land, family farmers, local ecosystems or economies. In contrast, sustainable local agriculture enriches the soil and surrounding ecosystems. It doesn’t use toxic chemicals. It’s minimally packaged and has much less ground to cover to get from the farm to you. It keeps wealth and taxes in the local community. And it provides your body with the nutrients you need to be healthy.

How is Local Roots changing the game and creating a healthier system?

Wen-Jay: Local Roots is about revolutionizing the way we shop for groceries in a city. Our service takes a lot of the decision making out of the process by ensuring people access to quality produce that is equally good for the earth and our bodies. With our community pick-up locations, we’ve also tied into people’s social life so that it becomes something that they are looking forward to.

We are a small company but we still believe that our small impact can make a difference. We’re showing the world that you can have a sustainable business that makes people’s lives better while staying rooted in a strong set of values.

What was it like to partner with UME?

Camryn: There are so many things going on in a small business and it can be overwhelming.

One of the wonderful things about partnering with UME was that they asked questions and took the time to get to know us. So that they could help us understand what was important and what we didn’t need to prioritize right away. It also made a really big difference to work with a team that was so supportive and really believed in us.

Together, Local Roots and UME completely reimagined the user journey and website. How has that work impacted your business?

Camryn: UME helped us get our mission and impact across to people — translating something that’s multilayered and complex into a clear message that everyday people can understand and get excited about. Once people really understand what we’re doing, they’re like, “I’m ready! Let’s eat vegetables!

Our business model and the food system we’re creating is so different from what people are used to, so it was critical to have UME guide us in being able to express how the process works in a really clear and accessible way. This change made a huge difference for our business because it allowed us to dive deeper into our one-on-one relationships with people because now they already understand how Local Roots works.

Another important shift was clearly differentiating between weekly subscriptions and add-on items that are just one-offs. This simple change in design and layout of our website really boosted our sales and brought about an organic growth in people adding new things onto their order.

And if we had not made all those structural and design changes to our e-commerce platform before COVID-19 hit, we truly would not have been able to manage the intensity of the increase in sales and customers. Having that solid foundation already in place was key to being able to stay open during the pandemic, and actually thrive. Our website was operating so efficiently, that it actually gave us back the time we needed to invest in pivoting to more deliveries so we could continue to serve people. It made a huge difference.

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What have you learned about yourselves through your partnership with UME?

Camryn: So much self discovery. I always knew that Local Roots was driven by community and the people around us, but something that really stood out for me after the deep brand and web work was that it empowered people to get even more involved. Since the web relaunch, we’ve had more people volunteering, starting a market in their own neighborhood, and even sharing business ideas. Being able to see the feedback we’re getting from people and everyone who is interested in sharing their skills or their resources to support us has been really phenomenal. Creating a whole Get Involved section and call to action on the website really just took the community to the next level.

Speaking of taking things to the next level, where do you think sustainable agriculture is headed?

Camryn: I love that question. Here’s where we hope things are heading… People will have a higher awareness of sustainable local agriculture and a different relationship to food labels. Consumers won’t be so fixated on fat, carbs, or sugar, but instead think about ingredients in a much more holistic manner — like soil health and content of where those berries were grown, the kinds of pesticides (if any) that were sprayed, how and when exactly they were harvested. It’s so important to give people information that grounds them in the reality of what it takes to grow and produce food in order for us to correctly reorient how we value it.

And how is Local Roots creating that future?

Camryn: In order to scale regenerative practices, there has to be consumer demand. So we have to raise awareness and empower people to ask the right questions about their food. Local Roots empowers people with two types of knowledge.

First, we’re showing people just how open and transparent their food system can be. To raise their expectations so that when they’re shopping somewhere else, they demand to know who the farmer is and how long ago it was harvested and how many miles it traveled.

Second, we’re showing people how food should really taste. Once you’ve bit into an apple that was picked minutes ago for peak flavor, you’ll never forget. You’ll never go back. You’ll never settle for less. That experiential knowledge never leaves you. And that’s how we see our role: converting people, one bite at a time.

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Visit Local Roots to learn more about regenerative agriculture.

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