Carolyn Federman – Founder of Charlie Cart Project

It may sound simple, but taking my dog for a walk every morning does wonders for my productivity. It forces me to get out and go for a walk no matter what. This is where I clear my head, find perspective, and do my best problem-solving.

Carolyn Federman is the founder and Executive Director of the Charlie Cart Project, a 501c3 non-profit organization designed to scale food education in the classroom. For 15 years, Carolyn has worked to transform the food system through educational programming, school lunch reform, and activism. She served as Development Director and Executive Director of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project (formerly Chez Panisse Foundation), consulted to the Jamie Oliver Foundation, co-founded the UC Berkeley Food Institute, and co-produced the Edible Education series at UC Berkeley with Michael Pollan. Carolyn is the parent of two children in the Berkeley public schools, where she teaches cooking in the classroom on a volunteer basis.

Where did the idea for the Charlie Cart come from?

I’ve been involved in the food movement for the better part of 15 years now, so I’ve had a firsthand opportunity to see how important it is to educate kids about food in our schools. A large part of that time was spent working with the trailblazer for food education, Alice Waters, helping manage and fund kitchen garden programs. Alice’s legacy as an activist is embodied in the Edible Schoolyard, a 1.5-acre organic garden with an adjacent kitchen classroom here at a public school in Berkeley, California. The program literally gave food education a platform it had previously never had.

When my son was in kindergarten, we were lucky to have a mom at the school who also happened to be a chef from Chez Panisse restaurant. She would wheel a stainless steel cart into the classroom and together we would do fruit and vegetable tastings and simple cooking projects with the kids. The children’s faces lit up when she rolled that cart into the room – it was so gratifying!

At the time my work was advocacy based – addressing causes like improvements to school lunch and reducing food marketing to kids. Through the hands-on cooking lessons I began to see that educating kids directly was the route I wanted to take – that’s where the real success happens!

The kids with hands-on food education learn to taste differently, to identify for themselves what makes a good food choice, and to care for themselves in the most important way. These skills are so critical, not only for their health, but for the health of the planet. If we want the next generation to solve the issues of the day – from climate change to feeding an ever-expanding population – we have to arm them with the tools and knowledge to do so.

Around the time that I began shifting my focus to classroom education, I attended a conference where I learned about ‘cuisine roulante,’ which were the rolling kitchens used by French soldiers in World War I, and something clicked. If schools can’t bring kids to the kitchen, lets bring the kitchen to them. Eventually, I called up Brian Dougherty, who runs Celery Design Collaborative and is also a fellow Berkeley parent. I asked him if he wanted to help design an affordable rolling kitchen that could streamline the whole process of integrating kitchen programs into schools. And here we are!

As it happens, the Chuck Wagon of the American pioneers pre-dates the “cuisine roulante,” hence the name. We like to think of the Charlie Cart as the great-great-grandchild of the chuck wagon, pioneering food education for the next generation.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My day is anchored around my kids! The productivity is in fitting a days work in-between making their breakfast and lunch, picking them up from school, helping them with homework, and making our dinner. I have small windows of time to get a lot accomplished, so I stay really focused and work really fast—I make a lot of lists! Pretty much every surface in my house is covered with lists. I write them at night and revise in the morning – then I know exactly what I need to accomplish each day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I spend a lot of time writing a business plan. I really wrestle with it — and with the budget; I get feedback from trusted sources, and then put the final touches on it. After that’s all said and done, I put it away and never look at it again! All of the time I spend writing and editing cements a road map in my mind. Every day I wake up knowing where I’m headed and why, which makes my daily – or even hourly decisions – so much easier

It’s also very important to me to find the right collaborators. I may have the germ of an idea, but when I find the right people with a new set of skills and expertise, things really begin to move forward.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I love that the connections between food, health, and the environment are finally being recognized in the mainstream. Programs like FoodCorps and the National Farm to School Network are gaining more and more support from public sources and well-respected, established organizations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is studying the impact of garden programs in schools. All of this is incredibly validating. It means we’re not only finding lots of willing and able partners for our work, but we also have support from a variety of sectors—often surprising ones.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

It may sound simple, but taking my dog for a walk every morning does wonders for my productivity. It forces me to get out and go for a walk no matter what. This is where I clear my head, find perspective, and do my best problem-solving. Sometimes a friend will join me, and we’ll talk through the issues and ideas of the day. Walking and talking has a special quality that sitting and talking lacks. The conversations feel more open and generative – something good always comes from those walks.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

When I was in college at UC Berkeley, I worked in a café called Intermezzo. All Cal grads will remember this place. It was a salad bar with lines that stretched around the block. If I looked up at the line I would get anxious and try to make the salads faster, which inevitably led to me messing something up. I learned from that job to simply focus on what’s right in front of me at the moment.

Another important insight from that job was the realization that we systematically waste huge amounts of food. Along with a salad, you would get a slice of fresh baked bread. But for whatever reason, they didn’t give out the heels. They would cut the heels really thick, so at the end of the night there was an enormous pile of fresh, perfectly good and delicious bread, waiting for the trash (it wasn’t even composted back then.) One night I bagged up all the heels and I dragged that giant bag of bread over to People’s Park where many homeless people sleep. This was my first introduction to how much food we needlessly throw away in this country.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

This project has me flying by the seat of my pants, which defies all the rules you learn growing up about being organized and having your ducks in a row. I’ve really learned to trust my own instinct and that was difficult for me to do at first, but each time I didn’t follow my gut, I wound-up needing to start from scratch.

Now I’m trying to be faithful to my own vision and believe in it without reservations. Not overthinking the obstacles has been a huge benefit! I’m not sure I would’ve jumped in with both feet if I knew about all the stumbling blocks at the outset.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Everyone you cross paths with knows something you don’t know and brings new experiences to your table. Maybe it’s a simple tip on where to get the best price on something, or maybe it’s something much more profound that changes your course of action. Asking questions and really listening to the answers has allowed me to glean something valuable from all my encounters – unexpected and otherwise.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Kickstarter was hugely important for us. I don’t mean to trivialize the financial aspect of it, but running a Kickstarter campaign is so much more valuable than the money you raise with it. It is so thoughtfully engineered. Their program allowed us to build a broad base of support through networking and social media, which attracted interest in the cart from across the country. We had pre-orders and requests for donations; even employment applications came in as a result of the campaign. The money we raised enabled us to run our pilot programs, which is invaluable to the success of the Charlie Cart Project.

I can’t close this question without also mentioning partnerships. Our very first action was to designate an advisory board and begin building partnerships. They lent their names, visibility, and considerable expertise to the Charlie Cart Project. We literally would not have come this far without their help. People reacted very positively to the trust and support of names like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future as supporters of the project.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

God, there have been so many! Failure goes along with the job of trying something new. I see it in my kids – they try a new sport and they talk about how bad they are at it. A couple of days later, there’s a transformation. They start to practice more and get better and that propels them forward. It’s so obvious, but as adults I think we forget those experiences. We tend to shy away from anything we’re not already good at.

Most importantly, overcoming failure comes with learning to be flexible. When I worked on the Food Institute at UC Berkeley, I had a certain idea of what the end product would be, but my idea was not in alignment with what was possible in the circumstances. I learned – and not for the first time – that you can’t be wedded to your plan!

Success depends on staying focused on problem solving while allowing your product or service to morph. In the end, it’s probably not going to be exactly what you had in mind when you started, but it’ll be better because you listened and responded to your audience.

It felt like a failure not to produce the vision I had started with for the Food Institute, but today, it’s running and doing great things, and I’m so proud that I had a hand in building it.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Right now all of my ideas are focused on food-related curriculum and advancing food education as a way to solve pressing social issues. If I had more time, I would draft a complete math curriculum based on Michael Ruhlman’s fabulous cookbook Ratio, which gives dough, stock, vinaigrette, and other basic recipes in ratios so you can be liberated from cookbooks forever.

After that, I would tackle a rigorous science curriculum, K-12, centered on cooking. I would start by adapting On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, for kids. This genius book is loaded with factoids and history about all things food. It’s so densely packed, it could easily cover 5 volumes. Simplify the text, add cool info graphics – and kids would be hooked on science for life! Then I would start an afterschool program and summer camp where we could test out the material on an on-going basis.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

$2.50 at the Cheeseboard Collective in Berkeley gets you a freshly baked roll, (still hot) with dried fruit and walnuts, a slab of creamery butter, and a perfect cup of coffee. This may be the last great deal of the universe and I am grateful to be able to take advantage of it on a regular basis. And it doesn’t even come close to $100.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I use MailChimp all the time—I love it because it’s so intuitive and easy. I also use and really like SquareSpace. These sorts of programs make it possible for non-experts to accomplish so much more online than they ever used to. And of course, Kickstarter, which is genius because it requires you to create all the basics for a new endeavor, and it gives you the tools and support to do it well. It’s like a step-by-step manual for getting started.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

If you want to learn to cook, read these three books: A Platter of Figs, by David Tanis, 12 Recipes by Cal Peternell, and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. They’ll completely change your perspective on what your abilities in the kitchen are.

If you want to learn about how food is connected to just about every aspect of our life, read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Harold McGee, Jamie Oliver, New York Times food columnist and cookbook author David Tanis, and chef and author Cal Peternell. Through books, mentorships, or friendships, these people have contributed the most to the work I do now.


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