SPUD CEO Peter Van Stolk shares wisdom on health, social activism and doing more on less resources
Peter Van Stolk, the renowned CEO of SPUD (Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery), doesn’t see high-quality, organic food as a mere luxury product for the wealthy few: to him, it’s an essential basis not just for the health of people, but also the planet.
Bad food — environmentally destructive and unhealthy food — is killing life on the planet, he said.
“You can forget cars: in my opinion, it’s food,” he said with conviction.
“I think that we, as a North American economy, we’ve been brought up on food that’s been killing us, the environment, the economy, everything. The food that we predominantly eat is cheap processed food. At SPUD, we value great organic food against that kind of food.”
Sitting in the white SPUD office’s kitchen on the edge of Hastings and Commercial Drive – a hub for organic shopping in the city – Van Stolk appears exactly as he does in videos and magazine photos: tall, lean, and casually dressed in a sweater and jeans. Lauded in the media as a ‘marketing maverick’ and globe-trotting public speaker on new business ideas, Van Stolk is disarmingly low-key and honest when discussing his work.
It’s no secret that North Americans do eat an inordinate amount of processed, high-calorie food compared to people in other regions of the world. As pointed out on the popular website 100 Days of Real Food, food products in the U.S. often contain chemicals that are banned in Europe (see the blog’s comparison between U.K. versions of the same baking products in sold in the U.S.).
Although beef consumption is on decline in North America, the average American and Canadian still eats some 60 lbs of beef per year. Considering that producing half a pound of hamburger meat releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a large car nearly 10 miles, that rate is said to be unsustainable for the planet.
SPUD represents the antithesis of all that: the company delivers fresh, organic and locally-produced foods to customers who order online. It’s a radically different approach from the mainstream experience of going to big-box grocery stores to buy produce (much of it genetically modified) from places as far-off as Chile and New Zealand.
“We’re hoping to change the way people shop…at SPUD, you’re not going to see when you check out, ‘did you get your M&M’s, your People magazine, candy, and soft drink soda’,” Van Stolk explained.
“There’s health to yourself, and there’s health to the planet. I think that when you use the word ‘health’ and ‘community’, those two items go together.”
An out-of-box thinker
Van Stolk’s advocacy for healthy food habits might come as a surprise considering his record as the founder and former head of Jones Soda, the iconoclastic soft drink brand featuring black-and-white photography and easygoing slogans on the label.
“I’m the first to admit I made money selling sugar water,” he said before anyone brings it up.
“But I’m also the first CEO who stood up on TV and said that Jones Soda was a treat. My daughter was only allowed to have one Jones Soda a week. We also sell chocolate here (at SPUD) and organic gummy worms, but they’re just a treat. We have to address that we’ve changed our diet in such a way that we’re completely out of whack.”
It was at Jones Soda that Van Stolk made his name as an unusual entrepreneur who spearheaded a lot of creative, Gen Y-oriented ideas that big corporations have only just now started to pick up, such as engaging customers through social media and crowdsourcing photos used on labels to the public.
That spirit of inclusion has been brought to SPUD as well. When Van Stolk took over in 2010, he spoke to customers about what they wanted and got input from his staff about how to update their brand. Van Stolk decided to change SPUD’s name from “Small Potatoes Urban Delivery” to “Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery” thanks to a suggestion from Jason, a truck driver in Seattle.
Photo of SPUD food bin courtesy of SPUD
“Some CEOs have this persona or this feeling that they need to know everything. Totally not the case, in my opinion — a great CEO asks great questions,” he said.
“What I’ve learned is that it’s not about me. When you’re in a great company …you’re just one part of the puzzle. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are much smarter and who are just really good people, maybe even better than me.”
Roots in advocacy for social and environmental justice
How did Van Stolk develop his unorthodox way of thinking? In many ways, he was born into it: Stolk’s mother Mary was a fashion model who had appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine, later becoming a fierce advocate of women’s and animals’ rights. She authored an influential book on battered children that led to a 1980 Senate report on child abuse in Canada. His father, Jan, was a co-founder of the pro-peace group Physicians for Social Responsibility.
“My parents were very active in the social and environmental field. Both were very opinionated, and that (the 1960s) was an interesting time… My mom was an activist and she was a writer. She was really into social causes and at that time there weren’t many people considering social causes, not like today. She was very assertive and aggressive in that area, and she worked diligently to try and change some of the things that she thought were wrong,” he said.
“It was fun to be around that.”
Van Stolk conveys a strong sense of respect when speaking about his mother. He said that while both parents taught him about “building community and to right injustices”, his mother lacked the academic background and credibility that his father had, making her life’s achievements all the more impressive. Van Stolk has said in the past that his vision for improving the lives of women and children is similar to his mother’s.
Big benefits of buying groceries online
While SPUD is firmly anchored and growing its business, there are challenges to convincing people to shop for groceries online and having them delivered to the door. For one thing, the cost isn’t cheap. The organic variation of a bag of pasta or bag of apples can be double or even triple the price of the cheaper, non-organic, imported version. But Van Stolk points out that saving 90 minutes of time on the weekend, plus the health benefit of buying organic, more than makes up for that cost. Some customers strongly agree.
“I don’t own a car, so having my groceries delivered is a real treat,” Julia Watson, a local SPUD customer, told The Vancouver Observer about her experience with the company.
“I do shop in stores as well and use my bike paniers, but it sure is a treat to have the groceries come right to my door, especially if I’m ordering a case of canned beans or something heavy. I have found that the fruits and veggies through SPUD are super fresh and the prices very comparable (to other organic grocery stores). I love not having to find time to go shopping. It’s one less thing to do and yet I still have wholesome food available at home to fuel me through my busy week.”
Photo of SPUD food on porch courtes of SPUD
Another fear that people have is trusting someone else to pick out their produce for them, but Van Stolk points out that picking one’s own produce is actually no safeguard against buying bad products.
“When you go to the grocery store and you buy those oranges, you take them home and they’re dry, most of the time you just throw the oranges in the garbage or the compost: you don’t think about it because that’s just the luck of the draw,” he said.
“But at SPUD, if that experience happens – it likely won’t, but if it does – I don’t ask you to carry it back to the store…just push the button and it’s gone from your bill. That’s what gives (SPUD users) confidence.”
Living more, consuming less
Outside of his work at SPUD, one of the things that preoccupies Van Stolk is how to improve living conditions in developing countries. One of the issues closest to his heart (and to his daughter, who now studying sustainability in university) is improving the lives of people in a way that doesn’t cause further damage to the environment. Having traveled extensively in the world and donated substantial funds to promote education in developing countries, Van Stolk has come to believe that “parachuting” first world ideas into other regions is not the answer.
“I want to see if there’s a way to create third world educational centres which teach people the way they used to do things – without trying to make it our way,” he said.
“I don’t necessarily believe that our way is going to be the best for the environment. I don’t think that owning 2.5 cars is the right thing to do… I’m thankful that I live in Vancouver, thankful that I spend enough time here to be able to do this.”
“But I think that there’s an opportunity to change the messaging. The messaging has always been we know how to solve these problems with this new technology, or this new this or that. And, maybe it’s not going to be about new technology. Maybe it’s about listening to how they used to do it, and providing a balance between what they used to do, and how we do things now.
“Maybe we do more with less.”
Full disclosure: SPUD is presently advertising with The Vancouver Observer. However, the interview with Van Stolk was on our to-do list for long before the advertising began.
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