How We Started

The story of how Groceryships started was published in The Huffington Post on 1/6/2014. The essay is titled Yuppies Watching Documentaries. Please read below for an abbreviated version.
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My wife Kirsten and I were on the couch watching Forks Over Knives, a documentary about healthy eating. When a man who struggled with high cholesterol his whole life adopted a whole-foods, plant-based diet and received the results of his blood test, he saw that his cholesterol had been cut in half. Next to me, Kirsten burst into tears.

She’d been on Lipitor since her early 20s and believed she’d have to remain on it for the rest of her life. When we realized that adopting a healthy diet could free her from the need to take medication, we decided to try. 

Changing Our Diet

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheeto or feel shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

The Hunger and Obesity Link 

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table, a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It was easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People who struggle to make ends meet often have little choice but to buy processed and fast food, which are the cheapest per-calorie. They often live in food deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available.

This hit me on a deep level. While I didn’t have personal experience with food insecurity, I did have experience with being overweight. I knew all the terrible problems that go along with being heavy--the teasing, the bullying, and the shame. The indignity of being both food insecure and overweight hit me on a gut level. No kid should have to deal with that.

How Could We Help? 

But what could we do? The problems of childhood obesity and food insecurity are too big for anyone to fix alone. We were stumped for a few days. Then we realized we didn’t have to “fix” childhood obesity or food insecurity. We just had to help another family.

The next day a friend of mine, Joe Spiccia, came over, and we started tossing around ideas. Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months? I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process.

That was the seed. Soon we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful and necessary.

Our idea was just an idea until I sent Father Greg Boyle at Homeboy Industries an email. Father Boyle has been a hero of mine for a long time, so I sent him a letter asking for advice. I didn’t actually have his email address, so I just sent it to the generic Homeboy email address. I didn’t really expect a response.

A few hours later, Father Boyle wrote back saying he loved the idea. I met with him, and he agreed to run the pilot program out of Homeboy Industries.

I told Father Boyle that I’d arrange for five or six families to receive Groceryships. When I left Homeboy, I started running the numbers in my head and realized that 5-6 families might cost about $20,000.

I called a friend and asked if I could stop by his office. He led me into a gorgeous corner conference room with views of the LA skyline. I told him our idea.

“I love it,” he said. “What do you need from me?”

“Money,” I said. “And we want you to join the board.”

“Done,” he said.

That was the beginning. A few days later, a donor that prefers to remain anonymous gave us an even larger donation, and all of a sudden we were funded.

And so Groceryships was born.