When it comes to baby food, fresh and organic options are scant. The baby food aisle of any major grocery store is filled with jars of pre-processed fruit and vegetable purees, all with a long shelf life. It’s a problem that led acclaimed actress and Save the Children ambassador Jennifer Garner to Once Upon a Farm, an organic line of fresh baby meals that need to be refrigerated.
“You just think, ‘Eww, that’s baby food’, which is crazy that we would talk and think that way when it’s actually what we’re feeding our babies,” said Garner at a panel at The Upfront Summit. As a young mother, Garner recalled trying to feed her children baby food made from scratch, which she called “ a complete nightmare.” She and her assistant began researching companies that sold fresh foods for babies, and stumbled upon Once Upon a Farm. They noticed that John Foraker, the long-time CEO of organic food company Annie’s, was an angel investor in the tiny startup. The women met with Foraker and had over a “three-hour conversation” about the fledgling company, which eventually led to Foraker and Garner joining as co-founders.
In 2017, Garner took over the helm of the San Diego-based startup along with former Annie’s president John Foraker, Ari Raz, and Cassandra Curtis. What followed next was a major rebrand and a national rollout in 2018. The company raised over $52 million last year in a funding round led by CAVU Venture Partners, along with existing investors S2G Ventures, Cambridge, and Beechwood.
When first researching the market for fresh baby food, Foraker was surprised to find out that at the time there were over 18,000 refrigerators in grocery stores for pet food, but not a single one for fresh baby food. He saw the opportunity to drive positive social impact, much like he had at Annie’s.
But the company ran into numerous challenges. Foraker and Garner sat down with stores and pitched their product. One major retailer gave the company space for 14 items in the middle of the dairy aisle.
“Fourteen items! Did we even have 14 items?” exclaimed Garner. The rapid rollout ended up not going so well, and sales were slow. The retailer eventually cut down the number of items and stores that stocked it by half. But demand for their fresh baby food skyrocketed during the pandemic, and sales more than doubled in 2021. That year the company also became the first fresh baby food approved by WIC (Women, Infant, Children Program), the federal grant program that provides assistance for mothers to buy healthy foods for their infants and young children.
“The biggest, biggest hurdle we had is that no one had ever done fresh food for WIC, so we had to actually convince the states to let us do it,” said Foraker. In order to qualify for WIC, the company had to follow numerous guidelines, including not being able to market to WIC recipients directly. The company is now approved for WIC in several states, including Wyoming, Connecticut, Florida, Vermont, Maine and West Virginia.
The company’s next step is lunch items for older children. They also want to expand and put coolers in the baby food aisle of every grocery store.
“You’ll probably see most grocery stores in our country — five, seven years from now — have a cooler in the baby aisle,” said Foraker. - Amrita Khalid