Google’s Innovations Are Designed To Create Community Through Food

by NYC Food Policy Editor

written by Annette Nielsen and Sycamore May

Google is renowned not only for its pioneering technology, but also for its commitment to providing an exemplary employee experience. A noted standout perk is its food service. Spearheading this initiative is Michiel Bakker who has transitioned into the role of VP, Global Workplace from being Director of Global Food Services. Bakker can take credit for revolutionizing much of what we know about today’s workplace dining. Besides making food offerings delicious, he has emphasized sustainability, health, and diversity. Under his leadership, Google elevated cafeteria offerings to feature seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients and a wide range of cuisines. As a result, Google employees savor delicious and nutritious meals every day.

Beyond the innovative food service, the company’s commitment to satisfying work experience extends to culinary education.  A key figure on the team who brings this expertise to the table is Marian Laraia, Google’s Executive Culinary Instructor – a collaborator in this innovative vision. Whether teaching interns or full-time staff, Marian is able to convey everything from kitchen basics, how to repurpose leftovers or plan and prepare a family meal – and in the classroom creates a true sense of community.

Marian also volunteers in her free time, teaching cooking to young students, those not yet in the workforce. She notes how great it is to partner with someone who wants to change the world through food like Green Bronx Machine’s founder, Stephen Ritz. You can find her volunteering on a joint event on Saturday, September 23 with Google, Green Bronx Machine and the James Beard Foundation, to teach a free class for kids who are ages 6 through 12. The focus of the class is how to use previously harvested vegetables and replant them for regrowth. The students will personalize a planter to take home, and they’ll also learn how to make a plant-forward dip they can make on their own for friends and family.

Marian’s enthusiasm about her role at Google and beyond is truly infectious, and it’s easy to understand why she will be honored at the Green Bronx Machine’s October 9th Inaugural “Grow Something Greater Gala” with the ‘Community Culinary Educator Award’– and why Michiel will be honored as the ‘Global Food Hero’ at the same event. 

Focusing on food in this novel way not only ensures a culture of well-being, but highlights wonderful meals that help to nourish minds and foster collaboration – a holistic approach.

The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center had the opportunity to meet up with Marian and Michiel for a conversation recently. Hear what they had to say about the rewards they realize in the good work they do at Google – their thoughtful approach to nourishing employees in big and small ways. 

Note: Interview has been condensed for brevity.

Food Policy Center: What was your first step in fostering a healthful mindset at Google, and what challenges did you face?

Michiel Bakker: Food has always been integral to Google’s culture. We realized that by making healthier choices easier and tastier, people would naturally make better decisions. Over the years, it became clear that first and foremost, we need to get people to show up for lunch. And then when they show up, based on the choices [available], the rest will follow. It doesn’t mean that we don’t make goodies available, but I think you just have to search a little longer, but it’s available. But what you see, what makes it easy, is just there.

FPC: Can you highlight two best practices that could be replicated in the private or nonprofit sectors?

MB: I view my world in three ecosystems. First, we manage food at work for Google, aiming to create value within Google and across Alphabet. Second, we engage with Alphabet’s partners and clients, including global food companies. Third, we contribute to broader discussions on health, food, and equity. We’ve identified five key areas where we want to make a difference, based on our competencies and interests. It’s not about personal credit; it’s about amplifying impact through partnerships, similar to our collaboration with Stephen. We’re impressed by what he achieves in challenging circumstances. To summarize, defining your organizational roles and supporting partners’ impact collectively is key.

FPC: Marian, how did you come to the culinary world, and what more can be done through education to impact positive changes?

Marian Laraia: My passion for cooking began when I was about five or six years old, watching my Sicilian grandfather make pizza. I couldn’t see over the countertop, but I was fascinated by him adding water to the yeast and watching it grow. I wanted to touch it, but he said, “No, no, no touch.” Eventually, I got to smell it. The memory of that yeast’s smell stuck with me after all these years. After he made the pizza, everyone came into the kitchen and they all ate together and they were laughing and talking and having the greatest time of their lives. I was like, I know want to do that when I grow up – I want to be like grandpa. 

FPC: What can make the largest impact in the education space for various age groups? How does Stephen Ritz and Green Bronx Machine create impact in food education?

ML: When introducing children to food, it’s essential to make it fun because that’s how they learn best. For instance, I used to take my kids food shopping, and before we left, we’d pick a crayon color, find a matching item in the store, and cook it together. This approach exposed them to diverse foods like asparagus, salmon, and mushrooms from a young age. If parents can embrace the mess in the kitchen, they provide their children with valuable life skills. It’s like on-the-job training. 

When Stephen (Ritz, of Green Bronx Machine) and I work together in a classroom, we treat all the kids as our own. As children grow older, they need inspiration and challenges. Our main challenge, I believe, is reaching young adults who enter the workforce without essential cooking and food shopping skills. Many of them shop at corner stores, but do they make healthy choices there? We’d love to teach kids how to shop for food, emphasizing that you don’t need access to a garden or a fancy grocery store; you can buy canned or frozen food from a bodega.

I think the Tower Gardens are an incredible insight to what is possible just from water and regrowing your food, the baby steps that could turn into an Olympic runner. We just need to build the foundation. And I think our goal is to create a sense of community, enable them to feel good about being in the kitchen, and feel good about food. Food in its natural form is the greatest thing in the entire world because it’s made by nature. Nobody has touched it yet. 

During the pandemic, we were doing very plant-based, plant-forward, plant everything was about a vegetable or a fruit and the greens. And nobody realized that for almost a year, we never made one thing that had legs, nothing. And nobody realized it until I said, ‘We are a plant-forward kitchen.’

Stephen’s unstoppable energy and passion for getting the world to grow their own food is infectious. His mission is to make people realize that as long as they’re growing and sharing food, they’re winning.

MB: I agree completely. Stephen’s impact on kids is remarkable. It’s essential to understand how we can cultivate more leaders like him to share the responsibility within the organization.

FPC: What excites you the most among the three pillars of the NYC’s Food Education Road Map: students’ knowledge and habits, access to healthy food in schools, or involving the community?

ML: I think breaking down the walls of “it’s a chore” and exposing people to fresh produce. If I could personally have a wish, my wish would be to have rooms, stadiums filled with fresh produce, and have everyone who walked in get a brown bag and have them choose what they want to make. Have them choose things they’ve never seen before, things that they’re exploring for the very first time. That’s what’s going to really impact the individual. 

Hands-on experiences with a variety of foods can profoundly impact children. When kids learn, adults follow, leading to healthier choices for everyone. What can we do to make this a reality? It’s all about education, experience, and inspiration.

MB: I [don’t] talk about [food education] as “food literacy”. But basically, it’s [to] create a more experiential learning platform where you can teach basic math and you use what you’re producing in your classroom as ultimately the living elements, and where everything revolves around growing your business. It’s about the math. It’s about how you talk about it. It’s about tasting. Therefore, it’s not something that is a specific subject. When we’re going to talk about health, or we’re going to tell you how to eat differently, or you get this judgmental element in there, and people don’t even realize it. 

Who are we to tell somebody else what they can and cannot do? I’m going to teach you math by just saying, We’re going to build a business, and therefore, from what do you need? And I think you can incorporate it because it becomes much more experiential. Whatever the subject is, History, Geography, Math, English, you can incorporate it. But I think what we do, we label it through the lens of what we’re trying to achieve. We want you to be healthier.

ML: That’s really it. When you think about it, isn’t that what we really want to do at the end of the day? It’s just like eat well, live well. We want to simplify and create a sense of community around food. Food can change lives, and we should teach it without judgment.

FPC: Be good and do good, right?

ML:Yeah. It sounds so simple, but I think we overcomplicate things. And I think that if we could just go back to the way  it was when we were kids. It was simple. There weren’t all of these bad choices to make. It was just like, if you wanted cookies, well, my mother made them. We couldn’t go to the store and buy them. If you wanted to grow something, well, you know what? On a Sunday, my dad’s going to help us dig holes and plant strawberries. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it is for all of these kids we’re trying to reach. But if we do plant the seed that food can actually change our lives, make it better, change our lives and make it more delicious or change our lives so we can have more friends as we cook. 

I feel like that’s what we do here on campus. We cook together, we enable each other, we form a sense of community, we bond, build relationships. We’re always talking about food and not food literacy, say, but just food in general and good tastes and where does it come from, which is where the geography lessons could come in. Certain things grow in certain places and math, it’s “I need a half a cup and three-quarters of a cup.” “When you put that together, how much does that make?” Basics. 

FPC: Tell me about Google’s internship program and its role in workforce development.

ML: The interns are such a huge part of our culture. [They] are the cream of the crop, so to speak. They’re coming here and they don’t know what to expect. Everybody hears about Google. But I will tell you when they come in, especially into the teaching kitchen here, they’re scared. But they took the first step because they signed up for the class. And when they leave, they [say], “I want to come back every day. I can’t believe I learned how to make eggs. I can’t believe I just learned how to make salad dressing. It’s going to change my life. My roommate is going to love me when I go back to school.” 

Not only are they getting a golden opportunity to perfect or increase their skill set for the workplace, working at Google, whether you’re an engineer or whatever it is that [they’re] doing, they get to come to the kitchen and let all their guards down. And now they’re actually making friends because most of our intern classes involve two people. So you have to have a teammate. When [interns] bond, it makes them work harder without them even knowing they’re working harder. They learn life skills, and we foster a sense of community, which motivates them to excel at work.

MB: We want people to be at their best in their time they’re committing to the work that they’re doing. So with our amenities programs, we do a variety of things. One is we remove unnecessary friction. That’s why we have a transportation program in the Bay Area. We want to create a platform that helps create a stronger sense of belonging. When you get to work with colleagues – close or more distant – in a teaching kitchen or your [own] event, the seeds are being planted to create new relationships. And ultimately, when you have a stronger bond with your colleagues or with the broader organization, it’s just a better environment to work in.

With the intern program, it’s a combination of looking for amazing talent, for interns to become great brand ambassadors as well for our organization when they go back to college.

FPC: What does the Global Food Hero Award from Green Bronx Machine mean to you?

MB: For me, it [has] two elements. The first one is I want to use the moment to celebrate the work that is being done by Stephen and his organization. Two, I want to highlight that each and every one of us in the most unexpected roles, in the most unexpected organizations can be a change-maker, if you believe. Stephen, in the most challenging circumstances, believes that he can make a difference. And I believe that I can use my working lab to drive bigger change as well. That’s because I believe, and I want to use those opportunities to make others see their belief moments as well.

FPC: And, Marian, you’re getting the Community Culinary Educator Award. What does that award mean to you? And what does receiving the Award inspire in you?

ML: It’s been a privilege being partners with Stephen, and we’ve developed a friendship… let’s just say that Stephen and I are ready to conquer the world. We want to sprinkle the Green Bronx machine around the world. We want to educate our kids. I don’t know why we connected as well as we did, why we have these visions of children eating and being healthy and happy and just kids, people, people being people. I love what I do. Like I said, these are all my children, and I want my children to live their best life possible, no matter where they are or what they do, as long as they’re being the best for themselves and they are healthy, happy individuals.

MB: To build upon that, knowing both Stephen and Marian, to celebrate the impact that individuals can make on an extraordinarily large ecosystem like Marian at Google New York, the people showing up in our teaching classes are “touched” by her. And that impact is hard to quantify. This is extraordinary, real, and I think it’s the same with Stephen. It’s that it’s contagious and to celebrate that. And it’s ultimately like, who would have thought that a teaching kitchen instructor has such an informal influence on our workforce in New York? Or for Stephen, having that in the school that he’s teaching in and ultimately the broader roles. But it is that belief in that you can make a difference to seeing it, but more importantly, acting upon it. That, to me, is what we’re celebrating and basically telling that story because others don’t necessarily see that they have the same opportunity.

FPC: What are your goals for Green Bronx Machine, and what steps do you think are needed to expand its work?

ML: We have several ideas. Not every school has the ability or the finances to have a teaching kitchen, but what happens if we bring the teaching kitchen to the school? Think about the Magic School bus, but let’s think about the Green Bronx Machine bus. The Green Bronx Machine buses are a classroom and these kids would come on board. We would teach them how to grow food, how to make food, and then how to eat. It’s a little program, whether it takes two days, three days, five days, whatever. They will learn more about food in that compact period of time and then go home with the skillset to actually make their food. It’s really [about] concentrating on the older kids because those are juniors and seniors going out into the world. How are they going to survive? We’re going to teach them the skills to do that. And then they can go into intern programs where they can learn about food more. And then they can learn how to make food and then they can have jobs and they have really curated their own system of, or their own culture, of how to live off of food because they learned a little bit. Then they’re going to learn more in their internships, and then they’re going to have part of their job in the food industry, part of the workforce. And then it becomes “I told two friends who told two friends,” and we’re just looking to get all of these kids involved to feel good about themselves and to never be hungry. I mean, you can be hungry for success. You can be hungry for power and whatever, but we don’t want to be hungry for food. They can learn how to take care of themselves and build on that.

MB: To franchise the model worldwide, Stephen needs to build a network of change-makers to carry on the work.

FPC: Describe Stephen Ritz in three words.

ML: Unstoppable, loving, believer.

MB: Unwavering, a doer, an energizer.

FPC: How do for-profit entities like Google play a role in addressing social issues like food insecurity?

MB: What I’ve come to believe and embrace in my world is that when you’re in a role where you can influence stuff and where you can see stuff, you find stuff to be done that serves multiple purposes concurrently.

When you bring people together in a teaching kitchen environment, fun stuff happens. It’s one of those amazing perks in our organization. It can become a way to test new ideas and you find individuals like Marian, who has choices as well. She could work in our ecosystem, she might work in another organization. By being very thoughtful of how you can create this ecosystem, where the same activity can serve multiple purposes, you can ultimately do so much more concurrently. 

I always get nervous when you say we’re doing teaching kitchens because we want everybody to eat more balanced plant-forward [meals]. The moment you say that you would kill the teaching kitchen concept. So similarly, I believe that corporations have both opportunities and responsibilities. You’re in an ecosystem where you ultimately plant seeds and you acknowledge that ultimately nature will take over. But as an organization, you have to prune, you have to fertilize, and sometimes you have to weed-whack a little bit. But that’s how I look at my ecosystem. I think as a result of that, as in nature as well, nobody is really completely controlling the ecosystem. That’s why it works.

ML: I’m such a believer in that, Michiel. I do need to say that having this role here in the teaching kitchen has changed my life, and it changed my life in a way that I now have an opportunity to share my love for cooking, my love for teaching, and doing it here at Google literally blew my mind. When I come to work every day, I’m the luckiest person on the planet to have the opportunity to do what I do. Here at Google, where I have the ability to teach with really no motive, these are people who don’t know how to crack eggs. I get to teach them that. I mean, simple little tasks like cracking an egg. 

One particular story stands out in my mind with a woman who came into Code for Cooks, which was a seven-week program. Each week was another basic skill set. She came in and said, “I signed up for class, but I think I’m too old.” I said, No one’s ever too old. I said, Why do you feel that way? She said, “I have two teenage kids and I don’t know how to cook.” I said, I guarantee you, by the end of the seven weeks, you will be cooking for your family. Well, by the fourth week, she said, “I went home last night and I made the dishes for my family.” She said, “And we all sat at the kitchen table together.” She said, “It’s the first time we ate together as a family. I made dinner,” and I started to cry. I told her, “This is what we want to do. I want you to be able to feel that you can go home and do that every single day.” And she did. And when her son went off to college, she brought him in to say, “Thank you for bringing my family together and teaching my mom how to cook. She taught me to cook.”

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