We need more education for both children and adults around nutrition. Most people live enormously busy lives, and taking time to fully understand food choices is often not a priority. So conveying this via educational snippets such as TED Ed, short-form documentary series such as ‘Explained,’ and even short-video education via social media like TikTok can make it very easy for people to learn and make better choices.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Jane, CEO and Co-Founder of clean food brand Proper Good.
Christopher Jane grew up on the south coast of England, earned his finance undergraduate degree in London and then moved to Bozeman, Montana. He then was a co-founder of Montana Mex, a clean-label condiment company that launched seven products to thousands of grocery stores. After a number of years he stepped away to do his MBA at Stanford where he came up with the idea for his newest food brand Proper Good, which launched direct to consumer in April 2020 with a focus on 90-seconds meals for keto, plant-based and other diet and lifestyle needs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I have been entrepreneurial since age 11. As a teenager I made pocket money buying and selling phones on eBay, selling cold water on a hot beach, and then in the later teen years organizing concerts for local bands.
At age 18 I found myself traveling the globe while playing online poker professionally. This stage of my life allowed me to control my own schedule, learn real-time decision making and critical thinking, and enjoy complete flexibility of time and income — all qualities which I would later rely on to help me succeed as a Founder.
After a few years, I decided my poker-playing time had come to an end, and I returned to England to study finance and investment banking in London at the Henley Business School. After graduating in 2012, I moved to Montana where my sister, Jennifer, was living at the time in Paradise Valley. While in Montana we became two of five co-founders of a food brand called Montana Mex, which offers a signature line of clean ingredient sauces, seasonings, and cooking oils. We felt passionate about offering good-for-you products that make it easier for people to cook with flavorful and clean ingredients. Montana Mex grew a great deal from its humble start at a farmer’s market stall, and after six years we were sold to thousands of stores nationwide including Whole Foods, H-E-B, Albertsons, and more.
I then took everything I learned from my poker and startup days and decided to pursue my MBA at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business (GSB). In the world of entrepreneurship there’s a tendency to be ‘go-go-go’ as there’s always something to do, and you’re always trying to move the ball forward, with usually very little time to actually stop, think, reflect, and regroup. The MBA allowed exactly this change with time to research, strategize, and discuss with peers, which are all very valuable uses of time and helped prevent just going through the motions of work, work, work. After exploring all options for my next step, from taking interviews with consultancy practices and other career track firms, to venturing on multiple trips abroad to Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, the UK and more, I felt I had fully and deeply explored all potential paths for the next stage of life.
In my second year of the MBA I decided I wanted to go back into entrepreneurship and, as I had thoroughly enjoyed the natural foods industry, I started exploring there. According to ResearchAndMarkets.com, the global food delivery industry is set to surpass the 160 billion dollars mark by 2024, and the direct-to-consumer space is growing at an outpaced rate. But despite that enormity, there is still a lack of focus on keto-friendly, plant-based, and other lifestyle meal delivery that is affordable and clean. So, in 2020 I decided to start a new food brand, Proper Good.
Along with my sister, co-founder and creative lead, Jennifer Jane, we’ve set out to embrace a market that’s demanding convenient 90-second meal solutions for dietary preferences, and together we’re taking the shelf stable ready-meals space into the premium arena where it’s never been before.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are so many interesting and unusual moments to think through, but one of the most ‘ah-ha’ moments was in relation to investor communication. Many entrepreneurs view investors as the ones we must impress, the ones we must show the shiny results to, keep them happy — the rose-tinted glasses as it were — but that is a very shallow relationship and will not lead to long-term success. I remember distinctly in our prior business a moment where we had to tell our lead investor some bad news and a below-expectation result. That was a nervous, high-heart-rate moment, but it was met with a casual ‘ok cool, so what can we do to turn it around?’ This moment of down-to-earth sharing changed the entire relationship for the better, and now at Proper Good we take this approach continuously. I record and share monthly videos with all investors, show the real-time stats whether they’re good or bad, and that has created an incredibly trusting relationship where we’re all on the same side, as opposed to ‘the business, founder, and investors’ being three separate entities.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
There was a tipping point when I went from seeing startups as relentless work, with almost a badge of honor to be gained by unsustainable hours, to seeing startups as a career choice and a process. This changed my go-go-go attitude, and I realized planning, research, and thought are just as valuable as the tactical day-to-day. This changed how I structure time and effort. Additionally, this shift is beneficial to all involved and is more rewarding. So, I encourage others to take at least one day off a week, a true day off, and allocate at least one day a week to planning, research, and thought, where you aren’t just playing whack-a-mole with your email inbox.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are too many to recall, but without a doubt my co-founder and sister Jennifer has been the most consistent and instrumental person in everything we’ve achieved. From our teenage years of trying to start small scrappy businesses together, to our first real food brand, to now Proper Good — always being able to rely on her for ideas, input, review, critique, and sheer hard work is no question the #1 reason we’re where we are today. Whether it’s critical thought, a brainstorming session, or just a month of solid grunt work, we know our relationship and mutual confidence is a non-wavering asset to us all.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Treat people as humans and not employees, customers, suppliers, or some other piece of the machine. At the end of the day most people have a few core needs that lead to them feeling welcomed, trusted, empowered, and listened to. We focus tremendously on treating every interaction as a human one, and do our absolute best to ensure the outcome is a win for everyone.
The days are gone where leaders stand at the front and shout what everyone should do. Instead I focus on building the support systems, the infrastructure, and the tools needed for someone to succeed on their own. Of course we have guidance and hopeful milestones in mind, but it’s a focus on letting the individual find their own path and build their own process.
With a focus on transparency and learning, for us there is almost no situation where a mistake is seen as a disciplinary event. Mistakes are often due to external factors — being stretched too thin, poor systems, and so forth, and are seen as an opportunity to update the process and fix as a team to avoid a future occurrence. If mistakes are punished often people will hide them or try to solve them on their own which can take them down a rabbit hole. If instead they right away come out with ‘I did X, didn’t mean to, not sure how to fix it’ we will rally to solve as a unit which is 10 times better in every way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Act as if you’ll die tomorrow, plan as if you’ll live forever.’ This to me strikes the perfect balance of living in the moment, enjoying what the world has to offer, and focusing on living in the now, as tomorrow is not guaranteed. But it also conveys at the same time having an eye for the future and making sure if you’re luckily enough to have one that it’s a good one. Often people over-index on either side… living for now and spending beyond their means or not saving anything for the future, or doing the opposite where they plan everything for their retirement and forget they’re living now. I find both of these to be problematic so trying to strike a balance is key in my mind.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
In the major metropolitan areas there is often an abundance of food — everything from fast food, to healthy fast casual, to fine dining — can often be found within a few blocks of each other. The main challenge then is for the consumer to choose what they want to eat, from either their preference or diet needs, and what fits their budget.
However, outside of these areas, food abundance is simply not available. Driving across the large US highways, you can often go literally hundreds of miles with the only options being junk food, and many offices and hospitals are close to strip malls with only junk food or low-quality options. Meanwhile many of the frozen and refrigerated meal delivery companies don’t deliver to sparsely populated states, so you are left with the Food Desert. How do I easily and affordably get quality meals every day? This is a problem that affects tens of millions of Americans on a daily basis, and simply through lack of convenient healthy options they often default to what’s available which is usually high-sodium and high-sugar items, leading to all sorts of health problems over time. It’s not that you can’t buy food in these areas, but it’s that you cannot buy nutritiously dense food easily or affordably.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
There are many societal consequences. On the individual side, we know different eating habits can drastically affect mood, motivation, self-esteem, and many other factors that lead to happiness. The spikes and crashes that can come from overly sugary foods can also affect sleep, and poor sleep affects pretty much everything else.
On the wider side, most numbers show two-thirds of Americans are now pre-diabetic. That’s over 200 million people, and the cost of treating this will become a major public health crisis. So being unable to feed people with high nutritional and affordable foods is only going to harm us all in the long-run.
The problem has also now spread to children where schools are catering fast-food instead of cooking in the cafeteria. Children are fed pizza and a juice box for lunch, but then expected to be engaged and perform in the classroom environment. We’re setting them up for failure and stacking the deck against them right from the start. We must ensure children are provided an environment to thrive, and that starts with correct nutrition.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
As someone who grew up in the UK, moving to the US at age 22, I do not have the lifelong experience of how this has changed over time. But I can without a doubt say the sheer availability, low cost, and continual mass marketing of junk food brands has made them become a permanent fixture and craving for the majority of people.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Proper Good is the only premium shelf-stable meal company for at home, work or on-the-go. We offer 90-second meal solutions with options accommodating keto, gluten / dairy-free and plant-based diets. All meals are made with clean and functional ingredients, and they’re shelf-stable to take on the go, and delivered direct with recyclable packaging. We deliver to all US cities, so for those living in food deserts, they can order with us and guarantee nutritional meals will be delivered to them. When we look at the distribution of our sales by state it’s almost an identical percentage of sales in say California vs. Idaho, and we believe this is because we’re solving the problem for people in these food deserts. With meals at 5.99 dollars including free-shipping, we can offer customers a nutritious, delicious, filling, 90-second meal for them to take to work or stock up the pantry.
We do a lot of work with what I would call ‘occupational food deserts’ — jobs where access to healthy food is incredibly difficult. For example, nurses have an extremely tough time eating well at hospitals as they work long shift, with short breaks, often no access to a fridge, and just a coffee pot and microwave in the break-room. Meanwhile truck drivers are on the road for days at a time, often with only fast-food available on the highways. Both these groups can be helped by having shelf-stable clean meals they can take with them in their backpack and ready to eat in an instant.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Having been involved in the natural foods space for 10 years now, I absolutely love the impact positive products and brands can have. It’s such a consumer-first industry and there’s so much feedback available to see how products are helping people’s lives. We often get lengthy reviews from nurses, truck drivers, and many other professions that struggle to get healthy, easy meals on the go. Seeing real consumer reviews about how we’ve helped them with our meals, whether that’s to lose weight, to save money, to stay full, or just help them feel like they’re making good food choices, is incredibly rewarding and a core thing we’re all proud of at Proper Good.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Schools need to feed children high-nutrition foods with minimal sugar and sodium. This can be achieved through parental demand, local lobbying, and so forth to drive change. This can also be accomplished one school at a time to show the benefit of improved nutrition.
- Businesses should prioritize feeding their employees at work, offering subsidized programs and other benefits to make it easy for them to make good choices. Companies such as Proper Good have clean wholesale pricing to sell direct to businesses for their employees, and it can be a true win/win for everyone involved.
- We need more education for both children and adults around nutrition. Most people live enormously busy lives, and taking time to fully understand food choices is often not a priority. So conveying this via educational snippets such as TED Ed, short-form documentary series such as ‘Explained,’ and even short-video education via social media like TikTok can make it very easy for people to learn and make better choices.
- The UK’s traffic light system on the front of product packaging is very useful and easy to understand in my opinion. This allows you to see within one second whether the food is ‘good, ok, or bad’ for fat, sugar, sodium etc. Most people don’t turn around a product and read the nutritional panel, so a front-of-pack signal would be very valuable for most.
- We need land owners to focus on diverse food offerings. For example, most highway food options are row upon row of fast-junk-food. There needs to be an emphasis on at least one better-for-you option within these stops. It doesn’t mean people will make the healthy choice, but it does give them the option.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
As far as I’m aware, we’re the only company addressing this via premium shelf-stable meals. However there are tremendous efforts and companies working across everything from clean and healthy snacks to meal donations and food insecurity charities. One we work with and donate meals to is Wellfare, and one great company working to upcycle waste into high-quality and nutritional snacks is Pulp Pantry.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
I would personally focus on children and changing the education system, as schools are now catering fast-food instead of cooking in the cafeteria.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would encourage the largest companies to lead the charge in sustainability and for consumers to demand this. I find there’s a mis-match in startups vs. industry leaders. For example, go to your average farmer’s market or small local store, and consumers will continuously ask a startup every nuanced question: is every piece compostable? Do you only source locally? Is it zero-added-sugar? How diverse is your workforce? Is it all organic? Meanwhile they have no care that 99% of the grocery store products are in plastic with no recycling programs, made with very cheap ingredients and crammed with sugar and salt. But the startup is the tiny local team that had an idea and wanted to try and execute on it, likely with no resources or experience, meanwhile the conglomerates have 10,000s of employees and billions in yearly sales. Why are we expecting startups to be able to check every single box but applying no such standard to where we spend most of our money?
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to sit down with the head of the American Nurses Association, Loressa Cole, as there are 5 million nurses in the US and 90 percent of them wish they had better access to healthy food at work. This is a problem we can solve very quickly with the right buy-in from leadership at hospitals.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.