Interview with Anna Hammond, Founder and CEO of Matriark Foods

by NYC Food Policy Editor
Anna Hammond headshot

Anna Hammond is the founder of Matriark Foods, a circular economy food business that uses supply chain innovation to solve the dire effects of wasted food on the environment by systematically eliminating inefficiencies in the produce sector. Matriark sells their upcycled products into the nation’s largest foodservice providers, recently launched a suite of retail tomato sauces into Whole Foods, and has just produced their first product for foodbanks, a nutritious vegetable stew with vegetables sourced from New York State farmers.

Before founding Matriark, Anna was Executive Director for The Sylvia Center and collaborated with farmers, institutions, funders, and foundations committed to solving food insecurity through education and reimagined food systems. Together they expanded healthy eating and cooking programs in public housing community centers in all 5 NYC boroughs and all 6 school districts in Columbia County. Matriark Foods is a social impact business— inspired by the thousands of children Anna has worked with (including her 3 children and 4 grandchildren) — to scale access to healthy food for the benefit of people and the environment.

Food Policy Center: Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in this interview. I want to start by asking about how you got interested in food — you have a creative background, including an MFA in painting from our very own Hunter College. What brought you to the food world?

​​Anna Hammond: After spending most of my career working in the art world and as a practicing artist, I decided to change paths and work in politics. I got a job as a speechwriter for a politician and quickly decided politics was not for me. The woman I worked for, Harriet Cornell, asked me to stay on as a community liaison for a couple of projects, and one of them involved a group of farmers in Rockland County. The farmers were trying to pass a piece of legislation to make county-owned land into farmland to grow food for the community. I worked with this group, which became the Rockland Farm Alliance and now has three farms in Rockland County that serve the community. I became fascinated with the challenges of farming as well as the obstacles that come with accessing healthy food.

You were the Executive Director of The Sylvia Center, a nonprofit dedicated to educating young people about nutrition, for eight years. Can you talk a bit about that experience? How did you get into that role?

Shortly after my stint in politics, I met Liz Newmark, the founder and president of Great Performances, who hired me to be the Executive Director of The Sylvia Center. Through that, I developed a healthy eating program for youth and families living in public housing, as well as a farm education program in Columbia County. 

When I first started at The Sylvia Center, school groups were coming to the farm and there were some after-school classes at a learning kitchen in the City. I saw an opportunity to turn the program into something bigger and more impactful that could teach young people how to cook healthy food on a budget. If you’re living on a budget and you don’t know how to cook, it’s very difficult to eat healthy food on a regular basis. So, we secured funding early on from the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City as well as private funding from the Rachael Ray Foundation to develop a curriculum for teaching teens and families how to cook delicious, healthy food. During the first couple years we wrote the curriculum and executed pilots, and then the program took off. The early funding and support from the Bloomberg administration, the incredible team we built, the engagement of the site managers running the public housing community centers, and my experience developing rigorous curricula created a fantastic combination for building this program. It was a real testament to collaboration and various entities really coming together because they recognized the need to provide a resource for young people to learn to cook through direct experience, one of the best ways to engage long-term learning as well as behavioral change. People joined our program to develop the skills to provide nutritious food for their families, and because cooking together is fun. And, of course, teenagers are always hungry, so they always stayed until the end of class!

What inspired the move to founding your own business after working for so long in the nonprofit world? What advice would you give to someone interested in a career change like yours?

Founding this business was inspired by a couple of things – one was seeing young people’s passion for eating healthy food despite the limited access they had to affordable ingredients. The farm program had a learning garden as well as 13 acres in production, and every week there was so much extra food that couldn’t find a home. Even donation centers didn’t have enough storage for people to utilize this food. And the data on the terrifying impact that wasted food has on climate change was starting to be widely published. Seeing all of this extra food, knowing that farmers need extra income, and being painfully aware that the young people we were working with wanted healthy accessible ingredients, was the storm that pushed me to launch Matriark. I also took a trip to India with a group of business school students from NYU whose assignment was to create a for-profit business model for Akshaya Patra, the world’s largest NGO feeding program. I saw the operations in Bangalore and it just blew me away and solidified my conviction that I had to do something about food access and the environment as it related to wasted food.

As for the advice I would give to someone looking to change careers: Life is a series of projects. You have a brain that can learn anything. There are so many problems that need to be solved (abstract math problems; getting insurance companies to stop insuring big oil companies; how to keep poetry and the arts alive in schools so that everyone has access to learning how to create – which is how new things get invented; to how to accelerate regenerative agriculture or rebuild the right kind of infrastructure for food systems transformation). You need to take a leap of faith and have the conviction that you very well might fail but you’ll learn so much along the way that you’ll be able to find another job. I had the passion to fix something and saw that the problem was fixable. I started my first business after 25 years in the nonprofit world. But everything I learned: developing a rigorous thesis, testing it out small with a little bit of funding; building it, changing it, and bringing along partners who could add value either strategically or financially, and then going for it – well, I pretty much transferred those skills to start this business.

If you’re specifically interested in environmental impact, economic impact, social impact, health impact – all of these things, especially the urgency of the climate crisis, we need your help.

Matriark Foods is a business that “upcycles” surplus and remnants of food into usable food products. What does “food upcycling” entail? From the farm where a carrot is grown to the carton of Matriark vegetable broth concentrate it ends up in, what does that life-cycle look like?

Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption. They are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains and have a positive impact on the environment.

Upcycled Food Association

As a founding member of the Upcycled Food Association, Matriark helped define the process for third-party verification of certified upcycled food products. Matriark’s supply chain is where we innovate, disrupt, and manifest the circular systems necessary to mitigate waste on a large scale. Across the US, there are fresh-cut facilities and vegetable processors that core, slice, chop, or otherwise prepare fresh food for the consumer to eat. In the aggregate, these facilities produce more than 19 million tons of usable off-cuts and rejected produce, most of which is sent to landfills. Matriark has worked with these vegetable manufacturers to safely capture and re-classify these perfectly edible off-cuts and rejects into shelf-stable food products. That means creating new systems to capture, just-in-time transport, and process the ripest, most delicious ingredients. It’s a time-sensitive and complex logistical process that requires cooperation and coordination. We also work with small and mid-scale farmers to purchase their imperfect vegetables for processing. This is logistically even more complex because of the dearth of infrastructure on a mid-scale level to gather, wash, and pack the fresh produce. Matriark is currently working on an infrastructure design that will address some of this and give more equity in the marketplace to regional farmers.

What are the benefits to upcycling food?

When wasted food goes to landfill, it creates greenhouse gasses that are 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Food waste is one of the biggest single contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, it’s estimated that 800 million people in the world face hunger, yet globally we produce one-and-a-half times the food we need to feed all people. Finding ways to upcycle food means finding ways to feed more people using the natural resources that have already gone into producing food (including water, land, labor, and transportation).

What sorts of farms/businesses are you currently procuring surplus/remains from? To where do you hope to expand?

We’re always expanding our supply chain and developing new relationships. This month we’re releasing a new product, a shelf-stable meal in a recyclable carton made specifically for food banks and emergency food providers. The ingredients for the product are sourced from many of the 120 New York State farms that are in partnership with Headwater Food Hub. We’ve partnered with Headwater to source our ingredients so that the end-product can be certified grown in NY. For our new tomato sauces, which launched last September (and can now be found in Whole Foods Markets in NY, NJ, and CT), we work with a tomato processor who has been throwing out more than three million pounds of tomatoes a year because they are too big, too small, or too ripe for the product he produces.

In an interview with Marketplace Morning Report, you mentioned the relationships you developed with Hudson Valley farmers as having helped to inspire the development of Matriark as a business. What were some of the most important things you learned from those relationships? What do you think New York City residents ought to understand about the farms where their food is grown and raised?

It may seem incredibly obvious, but farmers are our life-blood. Truly, we could not exist without farmers. The Hudson Valley is one of the most fertile agricultural areas in close proximity to one of the largest cities in the world. Mostly what I learned is how incredibly hard it is to get fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy to market if you’re not a large-scale operation. And most of the smaller farms are practicing organic or regenerative agriculture, which means they are an invaluable resource for a better food system. Along with this, many of these farms are owned by under-resourced farmers. The amount of food grown in the Hudson Valley could feed all people in the State of New York many times over and is a massive resource that could create not only greater access to healthy foods across the tri-state area but also stronger economic stability for the region and resilience against climate change. These farms produce much more food than they have a market for due to disaggregated logistics, lack of a cold chain, and lack of processing infrastructure. The State needs a strategic plan to support the build-out of a better infrastructure. I’m excited about the new regional food hub that GrowNYC is building at Hunts Point that will connect local small and mid-sized farms with New York City schools, hospitals, and nonprofits with more fresh produce. But there is still a need for a processing infrastructure that provides broader access to affordable, healthy, shelf-stable food products.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the early days of your business? What lessons did you learn over the past three years?

When we launched Matriark, we decided to focus on foodservice, which includes businesses, institutions, and companies — such as hotels, restaurants, dining halls, cafeterias, and retirement homes — that prepare meals for consumption outside the home. Foodservice is where more than 50 percent of all meals are eaten in this country, and it’s a massive opportunity to disrupt the way food is sourced and thus the subsequent impacts on the environment and human health. Just after we sold our first pallet of product at the beginning of March 2020, food service shut down globally! So, like so many businesses, we had to get really creative. We pivoted and made a smaller carton of our vegetable broth concentrate that we sold to one of our foodservice partners who was producing food boxes for frontline workers. We also received a grant from the ReFED Covid Solutions Fund to source farm surplus that was going to be tossed due to canceled contracts, and we made an upcycled frozen vegetable stew with a co-packer upstate that also had time available as a result of canceled contracts. We then worked with Table to Table, a community-based food rescue program, to distribute this product to people in need. Doing all of this allowed us to remain true to the values of the company while we also survived a complete shutdown of our target market. We were also chosen for a number of very rigorous accelerator programs, including the Kroger Zero Hunger Zero Waste Accelerator, that came with significant funding support, also helped us really hone our business model. It was really, really hard, and there were definitely times when we wondered if we were going to make it. But partnerships are everything when you’re transforming systems, and the relationships we formed during that time established a solid foothold for our business.

What work does Matriark do to combat food insecurity today?

Matriark has just released a nutritious Vegetable Harvest Stew in a shelf-stable carton. The product has 530 healthy calories, 18 grams of protein, 12 grams of fiber, and 30 percent of the daily value of iron. It can be eaten at room temperature or warmed up. We worked with one of our food bank partners to taste-test the product to make sure it would be something people really liked. It will also be eligible for the Nourish New York program, which connects New York State-sourced food with food banks. We’re working to create offerings for food banks and emergency food providers that are nutritious, delicious, that support regional economies and that travel many fewer miles than most food that goes to food banks.

Is there anything you have learned through your work at Matriark that could be beneficial to institutional procurement policies?

Matriark is a certified women-owned business in New York State, New York City, and nationally. We have the ability to produce at a very large scale, and we’re sourcing from New York State farmers. Yet it is still incredibly complex to get our products into institutions. The process is labyrinthine. Much simpler systems for procurement need to be operationalized. A good example of success is the Nourish New York program that Kathy Hochul codified into law after Covid. We’re in a really exciting time of possibility for radical change in our food systems, and we need our elected representatives to make bold moves that cut through partisan idiocy and coalesce around the infrastructure, economic opportunities, better environmental practices, and equity we need to — no exaggeration — survive. We need to work together to reduce the miles of food travel, while also supporting innovation, diverse suppliers, and local businesses that represent the State of New York. Institutional procurement is very complex with a lot of layers and standard practices that favor big food producers. That’s not going to get us where we need to be in terms of local economies, good environmental practices, and diversity in the supply chain. Institutions need to commit a serious percentage of procurement dollars, as well as time, to working more locally. Everyone needs to make bold moves, not just bold statements, in order to make New York the thriving, healthy state it can be.

Fast Facts

Grew up in: Buffalo, NY
City or town you call home: New York City
Job title: Founder, CEO
Background and education: Nichols School, Buffalo; BA, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; ABD, University of Chicago; MFA Hunter College. Worked at ArtNews, The Museum of Modern Art, NY; Yale Art Gallery; Rockland County Legislature; The Sylvia Center.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Promising
Food policy hero: Vandana Shiva
Your breakfast this morning: Poached egg on homemade english muffin with Bombay Delhi tomato achar. 4 espressos with milk.
Favorite food: Raspberries warmed by the sun picked right off the bush and eaten immediately
Favorite last meal on Earth: Homemade pappardelle with wild rabbit sauce; puntarelle lightly sauteed with freshly pressed olive oil. My grandmother’s blueberry peach pie with homemade vanilla ice cream; Sparkling water with elderberry syrup
Favorite food hangout: My kitchen table; my kids’ kitchen tables; my friends’ kitchen tables.

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