Hot! Campbell’s cans hunger

TheStar.com – living/food
Published On Wed Mar 16 2011.    Jennifer Bain, Food Editor

The good vibes at the Campbell’s soup plant in Etobicoke are evident in the hallways, cafeteria and especially the test kitchen, where staff members are explaining how they came up with a complete meal in a can to tackle hunger.

For Jan Ouwehand, vice-president of research and development, the pivotal moment came while volunteering to sort food a few blocks away at the Daily Bread Food Bank in New Toronto.

Everyone was struck by how many Campbell’s products were on the shelves.

“We thought, ‘we’re sort of there and it’s great, but we can probably do more,’” says corporate chef Bob Villeneuve.

That “more” took less than 18 months to create and will start rolling off the production line at the Etobicoke plant next week.

It’s called Nourish and it’s a complete meal because each 425-gram can provides a full serving of three food groups, including vegetables, grains and protein.

Packed with a Canadian supergrain called naked oats, Nourish comes in vegetarian and chicken flavours. It can be eaten straight from the can if there is no place to heat it and it tastes good.

The first 100,000 cans will be donated to Food Banks Canada.

Campbell’s hopes its Facebook and Twitter campaign will trigger another 100,000 donations by Hunger Awareness Day on May 31.

Every time someone likes its Facebook page (Campbell Canada — The Story of Nourish) or comments on its wall, watches, shares or likes the two-minute video it has posted there, or tweets with the hashtag #Nourish, the company will donate another can of Nourish.

And, later this year, Nourish should start retailing for about the same price as Campbell’s chili (around $4). Net profits from these sales will be earmarked for more production and more donations.

“Access to healthy food is a right,” says Mark Childs, vice-president of marketing. “That runs at the core of the DNA strand of the Campbell’s team.”

About eight years ago Campbell Co. of Canada rejigged its corporate mission to “Extraordinary, authentic nourishment for all.”

It asked employees to support one of three causes: alleviating hunger, nutrition, or helping Canadians prepare and choose better meals.

The Nourish project really got going in November 2009 after staff took part in the food bank sorting and then attended a global think-tank on food security in Montreal.

As Villeneuve puts it: “This really is so different from anything else we make. The jumping off point was an empty pot and good intentions.”

Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, is “ecstatic” over Campbell’s “unique approach” to creating Nourish.

“It is the first time in Canada that a food company operator has created a product thinking about Canadians who are struggling to put food on the table,” she points out.

What Schmidt appreciated most, however, was the Nourish team came to its member council meeting last June. It shared samples with 18 provincial food bank representatives and asked for advice.

Members asked for Nourish to be a complete meal that isn’t too spicy and can be eaten cold from easy-to-open cans (for those without a stove or hot plate). To combat any potential stigma, it wanted the product to have a nice label and be sold to the public — not just donated to food banks.

Campbell’s delivered on all points.

“It’s clearly a premium product instead of something that’s lower grade and has negative connotations,” says Schmidt.

Daily Bread Food Bank executive director Gail Nyberg is particularly excited about the Six Vegetable Grain version.

“To have a product that has protein and is vegetarian and is halal is bonus, bonus, bonus.”

Both women believe Campbell’s is a good corporate citizen whose motives for Nourish are sincere and not simply smart marketing. (Childs will say that if Nourish causes more people to rediscover Campbell’s or become more committed to the company, that’s a good thing.)

Schmidt points to Campbell’s long-standing and growing food bank donations, the amount of money invested to create Nourish from scratch (instead of repurposing an existing product), and “the level of personal engagement” of its staff.

“I think the thing to remember,” she adds, “is that there’s not enough food.”

Although nearly 870,000 Canadians get help from food banks every month, they don’t get enough to fully feed their families. The majority of users make six visits a year, getting three to five days worth of food each time.

“It’s not easy (to go to a food bank),” Schmidt stresses. “And you don’t necessarily get the Wheaties you’re looking for.”

So how does Nourish taste?

Six Vegetable Grain is packed with pea beans, naked oats, carrots and mushrooms, but it’s held together by tomato giving it that trademark Campbell’s taste. Hearty Chicken Bean, with red kidney beans and red chili powder, tastes like chili.

“It’s a pretty simple ingredient deck,” points out Andrea Dunn, Campbell’s nutrition strategy manager. Both types of Nourish are high-fibre, low-fat and calorically “quite responsible,” coming in around 360 calories.

Both revolve around naked oats, a hullless, made-in-Canada oat that looks and tastes like rice. The oats have twice the protein, 10 times the fibre and five times the iron of white rice, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

There is, it seems, no downside to Nourish. There is even talk of making it available globally for disaster relief because it can be opened without a can opener and doesn’t need to be mixed with water.

“What is going to be the end game (for Nourish)?” asks Childs. “We are still charting that course.”

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