A conversation with an organic food pioneer
Nell Newman photographed by Lane Johnson
Nell Newman, founder of Newman’s Own Organics, grew up tomboy-style in the Connecticut woods, fishing and hiking and exploring the natural world. Soon after graduating from college, where she earned a degree in human ecology, she worked to re-establish the bald eagle in Central California. Now in her late 40s, Newman is an avid Santa Cruz surfer and angler who occasionally reels in her own salmon for dinner. As photogenic as her famous parents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and as business-savvy as most Harvard MBAs, Nell Newman has been a major force in the organic food business. She welcomed us into her Aptos office to talk about her career.
EUCALYPTUS: How did you end up running your business here in Santa Cruz?
NELL: I’ve been in Santa Cruz since 1989. I ended up here by accident. I happened to find a job in Santa Cruz long before I started Newman’s Own Organics. I was going to work at the Environmental Defense Fund in Oakland. I was supposed to be working on California water rights issues. I read Cadillac Desert on the way out to California, so I thought I understood the issues, but it was all too overwhelming for me. I gave a friend of mine a call and wound up getting a job at UC Santa Cruz running a little nonprofit called the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary. A couple years later, I left and worked as a fundraiser for the Santa Cruz Bird Research Group.
So how did Newman’s Own Organics come about?
Back when I was running the nonprofit, I was always trying to raise money for it, and that was very hard. I saw what my dad was doing with his food company, Newman’s Own, and the foundation that it supported. He was able to use Newman’s Own to raise money for good causes. I thought, why don’t I see if I can talk Dad into letting us do a division that makes organic food products? It’s the triple-bottom-line concept.
Why does Newman’s Own Organics produce snack foods like cookies, chips, and chocolate instead of more substantial, staple foods?
We like snack foods. We were thinking more of fun foods rather than serious foods. Snack foods are more fun than the nut loaf with yeast gravy that my mother used to serve our family in the 1970s. We make what we like because we like what we make. When we started this company 18 years ago, there weren’t any good organic white-flour pretzels on the market. We wanted to make sure there were some, because there was no way I was ever going to convince my father to eat a seven-grain pretzel.
How did you decide what snack foods to produce?
When we started the company, there were limitations in terms of the ingredients that were available. The second product we ever made was chocolate, because somebody showed up with organic cocoa beans, sugar, and vanilla. That’s why we made chocolate. We chose what we made based on the ingredients we could find.
We’ve heard that the McDonald’s chain is serving your organic coffee in their New England outlets.
We’re quite proud of it. They sought us out. They were already selling Newman’s Own salad dressings and then they started selling our coffee. A lot of people reacted with “Oh my God, you’re selling your coffee at McDonald’s,” but you know what? We exposed a whole new consumer to organic food products. Who cares where it is? The important point is that there’s a whole new group of customers who had never thought of buying our coffee. They are now drinking organic coffee and saying it tastes pretty good.
I understand you traveled to Guatemala to see how the organic, fair-trade coffee you sell is grown.
That was a profound experience—to actually go and see that the beans are being picked by hand and brought down the hill on the back of a donkey. We could really see the impact of coffee production on human lives. Until we go and see it, we don’t know what these people’s lives are like, what kind of poverty they live in, or what they go through to raise coffee. Getting a coffee crop certified as organic is a labor-intensive process. It’s really hard. But the number of acres that are farmed organically has grown exponentially. Pesticide isn’t being sprayed on those acres.
What do you think of the USDA Organic standards?
I think we got what we asked for. Organic food producers asked to be regulated; we wanted every state to have the same standards. Back when we first started, some states didn’t have any laws regulating organics at all and there was no national standard. Some states didn’t have reciprocity with others. Now we have the same standard across the country. Every company that produces an organic food product in the United States has to be independently third-party certified. An overseeing organization has to certify how your ingredients were grown, how they were shipped, and how they were processed and made into a product. It used to be that just your ingredients had to be certified; now your manufacturing plant also has to be certified. Your organic flour can’t sit in a room with conventional flour unless it’s bagged and labeled and separated off to one side. It’s very specific.
Do you think we need stricter regulations for all the food we consume, not just organics?
The human body has background levels of more than 100 different contaminants—pesticides, herbicides, plastics, etc. How come conventional [non-organic] foods don’t have to list on their labels what has been sprayed on them? How come genetically engineered foods don’t have to list the fact that they are genetically engineered?
What’s your take on the genetically modified food controversy?
We’re as committed to using non-GMO ingredients as any other organic food company. You have to trust the certification process and try not to use corn, soy, or any ingredients that would likely contain GMOs. But recently we had three genetically engineered crops that were deregulated. I don’t think the Obama Administration really understands what the issues are. There can’t be coexistence with GMO and non-GMO crops. Pollen spreads, and crops will be contaminated. I’m amazed at how shortsighted the agriculture industry is. Why are we one of the few countries that allows this?
Is it practical or reasonable for consumers to buy only organic foods?
We’re very lucky out here in the Bay Area and in the middle of the “Salad Bowl” to have access to such a wide variety of incredible produce. We are a little spoiled here. We have innumerable farmers’ markets. I shop at farmers’ markets as much as possible—I have my favorite farmers who I buy from and I like knowing who grew my food. It is a luxury, but the growth of farmers’ markets and the organics industry in general points to the fact that consumers do want to know where their food comes from and how it’s grown.
Do you personally eat only organic foods?
I’m a “flexitarian.” I eat what’s put in front of me. When you’re traveling and you are eating in people’s houses, you can’t say, “Is that organic?”
How does it feel to know that a chunk of your company’s profits goes to a foundation that supports various nonprofit organizations?
I feel good about what I do. I didn’t start this company to become a millionaire; I started this company to support organic agriculture and also support Dad’s dream of the foundation. I’m in this for a different reason.