Califonia Bountiful

Baby's first bites

March/April 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Moms build business on California-grown goodness for tots

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Entering the kitchen at Flourish Foods in San Francisco is a bit like walking into a children's book. Vibrant colors surround you—oranges, greens, yellows and more. A three-person team moves as if choreographed, each focused on her own tasks. One is pureeing, another making finger foods.

Across the kitchen are racks with trays of tamales, empanadas, meatballs and muffins—all miniaturized.

"When people come into our kitchen, they always comment how adorable our 'mini' products are," said Kim Burns, founder of Flourish Foods. "They're all perfectly sized for little hands, but yummy enough for the whole family."

Flourish Foods founder Kim Burns turns seasonal, local produce into fresh purees for babies. Her company aims to fill the need of busy parents for convenient, nutritious baby and toddler foods that offer plenty of flavor. Photo: courtesy Flourish Foods

Burns was inspired to start the company, which creates food such as prune purees for babies and mini-meatballs for toddlers, while balancing work and her new role as a mother. She has since added nutrient-dense stews for pregnant and postpartum mothers, all while staying true to her roots by purchasing ingredients from California farms and ranches.

"When my daughter started eating solid foods at 6 months, I set out to make all of her baby food from scratch," Burns recalled. "It was time-consuming, but I loved knowing I was giving my baby the best food possible. When I went back to my corporate job full time, I quickly realized I didn't have the time to keep up with the baby-food making."

Burns also quickly decided ready-made options didn't stack up to her homemade fare. So she turned her frustration into inspiration and, along with a friend, created a company called Fresh Baby Bites in 2010. After her friend left the business, Burns ventured out on her own and last year founded Flourish Foods, offering products for delivery around the San Francisco Bay Area.

"The beauty of living in California is having access to amazing local ingredients year-round," she said. "We are truly fortunate."

Farm-to-puree matchmaker

When Burns and her former partner started the business, they bought their ingredients at farmers markets. But with a growing company, she pointed out, that practice is no longer feasible: "You can't really haul 50 pounds of squash or 100 pounds of peaches in a farmers market basket."

One of Burns' current wholesale suppliers, Emeryville-based Imperfect Produce, has been able to play matchmaker, connecting her with farmers seeking customers just like her.

"I love their concept—they work with local farmers to help them sell their 'undesirable' crops, meaning items that may not be the prettiest with some blemishes, but are perfect for us," Burns said.

Once produce is chopped or pureed to create Flourish's final products, blemishes are a distant memory. Imperfect Produce helps Flourish gather a range of produce from California farms, including celery grown in Watsonville, sweet potatoes from Atwater and citrus from Vista.

"We are the 'ugly produce company,'" Imperfect Produce Outreach Manager Dylan Bondy said.

Dylan Bondy of Emoryville-based Imperfect Produce buys "cosmetically challenged" fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers, then sells them to customers such as Flourish Foods. Photo: © 2017 Matt Salvo

He explained that the strict beauty standards of American grocery stores often leave farmers with significant amounts of rejected produce on their hands.

"These 'cosmetically challenged' fruits and vegetables aren't acceptable for standard retail shelves due to their shape, size, color or minor scarring," Bondy said. "But it's all still good. That's why we purchase these 'uglies' directly from farmers and sell it to consumers and local businesses—fighting waste and feeding people at a discount."

Bondy estimates that since Imperfect Produce launched in August 2015, the company has recovered more than 1.5 million pounds of produce that would otherwise go unused. It ships about 5,700 boxes of mixed seasonal produce weekly—mostly to homes, but also small businesses such as Flourish Foods.

The Flourish Foods team includes, from left, Marjan Esser, Naomi Outlaw, company founder Kim Burns, Julieta Vallejo and Tonita Alba. Photo: © 2017 Matt Salvo

Lessons learned at home

Back in San Francisco, the Flourish kitchen is a well-oiled machine with three to five women working at once. Marjan Esser, whom Burns describes as her "right-hand woman," was hired as a muffin and meatball maker, but now manages marketing, outreach and product development.

"I have a natural curiosity and urge to make good food," Esser said. "I associate a good meal with a good time. An experience and conversation with family and friends while eating a wonderful, healthy meal makes me happy and feel satisfied."

Kristin Kotack, Flourish's chef, said she felt drawn to the company because she liked the idea of meeting the needs of local families, while also supporting local farmers and ranchers.

When developing their menus, Burns, Esser and Kotack reflect on what they have learned as busy moms.

"We all want the best for our little ones. We have to focus on nourishing them with the best we have at hand—for example, cooking with whole foods at home whenever possible," Kotack said. "However, we are not super moms or dads. Equally nutritious, premade foods are priceless."

Many of Flourish Foods' offerings are seasonal, and the team works with Imperfect Produce to connect with various farmers, depending on what is currently being harvested across the state. For example, the mini-tamales can include organic butternut squash grown in Brentwood, and a persimmon puree offered in the fall is made from fruit grown in Kingsburg.

Esser said she believes the products she makes can play a key role in the development of a child's relationship with food.

"This all starts when Mom is pregnant," she explained. "Baby gets a taste of all the flavors Mom is enjoying, which continues after birth while Mom nurses Baby. A good variety in foods is also very important for Mom to supplement her body with all the nutrients that the baby takes."

Naomi Outlaw, left, and Julieta Vallejo are part of the Flourish Foods team that creates every baby and toddler food item by hand, from scratch. Creative choices such as mini tamales allow toddlers to explore their developing palates.¬†Photos left and center: © 2017 Matt Salvo. Photo right: courtesy Flourish Foods

When it comes to the finished product, "variety and flavor are key," Burns said. "Food has to taste good. Just like us, babies want food that tastes good. Don't be afraid to spice things up—small amounts of herbs and spices are perfect for budding foodies."

Burns has a rule for the aspiring epicures in her home, Anna Mae, 8, and Gus, 4: You must try something before you can say you don't like it. She also encourages other parents to avoid overthinking their children's meals.

"Nutrition is not rocket science; it's common sense. Your kids will take their lead from you, so hopefully you can practice what you preach," she said. "If you eat sensibly, so will your kids. If they see you try new things, they will too."

One of the reasons Flourish expanded its menu to include empanadas, tamales and meatballs was to offer items both toddlers and their parents could enjoy together.

"I love that we are able to fill a void for busy parents by whipping up wholesome, nutritious and delicious food for families," Burns said. "I also love that I am able to give a paycheck to some very deserving and hardworking women. This truly is a business of love."

Megan Alpers

9 expert tips for homemade purees

Making your own baby food purees lets you share the fresh, California-grown goodness of each season with your little one. The Flourish Foods team offers several tips:

  1. Buy high-quality, fresh produce grown in California. The Flourish Foods team likes to use organics.
  2. Use a blender or food processor. Though it's possible to mash some foods by fork, it can be dangerous to give lumpier purees to younger children before they've developed their chewing muscles.
  3. Make sure to steam, roast, braise or boil your produce until it is soft before pureeing it.
  4. If serving meat protein, be sure to use proper cooking temperatures to ensure safe food.
  5. Spice it up—baby food doesn't have to be boring! Incorporating small amounts of herbs and spices is a great way to expand palates and make food taste great. But remember, since babies' taste buds are more sensitive, a little goes a long way.
  6. Never give any amount of honey to babies younger than 1 year old.
  7. Introduce new foods one ingredient at a time, with four days in between the next new ingredient. This allows time for any signs of food allergies to emerge.
  8. Broth is a great way to add protein, flavor and nutrients to your baby's diet, and can help thin the consistency of a thick puree.
  9. Keep leftover puree germ-free for later use: Feed your baby from a separate serving bowl with only the amount she or he will eat in one sitting.

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