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Natural Awakenings

Sustainable Foods & Social Philanthropy: A Conversation with Nell Newman

Feb 28, 2011 05:45PM ● By Ellen Mahoney

Following in her famous parents’ footsteps, Nell Newman, daughter of actors and environmental activists Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, launched Newman’s Own Organics in 1993 with business partner Peter Meehan. She is also the author of The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life: Simple Measures that Benefit You and the Place You Live. Since 1982, the Newman’s Own Foundation, which originated with her father’s company, Newman’s Own, has donated more than $300 million to educational and charitable organizations worldwide.

Why did you decide to create Newman’s Own Organics?

In 1989 I worked as the development director for the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, trying to raise money for this small nonprofit. I was very motivated to do this work because I was dumbfounded by how the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle populations were being decimated due to the use of the synthetic pesticide DDT. But raising money for this organization wasn’t easy.

I started to look closely at the business model Dad was working on at the time to produce and sell high-quality products, with profits going to various charities. I thought it was a great idea that could be done a little differently, and decided to create an organic line of food products. My hope was to have the line support organic agriculture and better the environment, while providing funds to worthy nonprofits.

Did your parents always support your definition of truly healthy food?

I grew up in an old Colonial farmhouse in Westport, Connecticut, and my parents were always interested in healthy food and cooking. Mom had been a health foodie since the late ’60s, and she taught me how to cook at an early age. Dad taught me how to fish and how to pick ripe produce from the local farm stand. But I realized that Dad associated all health food with nut loaf topped with yeast gravy and “atomic” muffins, made with heavy whole wheat. He had some stubborn ideas about what he thought organic food really was.

So, one year, I secretly prepared a totally organic Thanksgiving dinner for the family. When Dad finished his plate I asked, “So, how did you like your organic dinner?” He was surprised and knew he’d been had, but also realized that organic food didn’t have to taste funny. Our first product for Newman’s Own Organics, an organic pretzel, became Dad’s favorite snack.

How do you advocate for the principles of sustainable agriculture?

My big goal in life is to support the growth of organic agriculture, because the impact is profound. Our company uses as many organic ingredients in our products as we possibly can. Today, I also love to farm organically in my backyard. I have nine chickens, a peach tree, a couple of citrus trees and four raised beds for fruits and vegetables.

What role did social responsibility play in your family life?

I knew my parents were politically active, but “socially responsible” wasn’t even a term when I was growing up. They never lectured or made a big deal about their philanthropy; I only learned about it through their example. Dad’s company began because people loved his homemade salad dressing; he was always putting it in big wine bottles and giving it away. Although he thought it was a harebrained idea and was told that celebrity products usually fail, he eventually decided to sell it. In the first year he made $890,000; at that time he was at the peak of his acting career and instead of pocketing the money, he donated it to selected charities.

Why did you decide to develop a line of organic pet foods?

When I was a kid, we had five dogs, six cats and a pet skunk. I was also a budding ornithologist, and as a teenager I practiced the art of falconry, because the peregrine was my favorite bird. I’ve always loved animals, so organic pet food seemed like a natural product line extension to me.

It was a challenge to convince Dad, but we finally launched the pet line in 2005 and it’s been highly successful. Because the type of food an animal eats affects its quality of life, it’s vital to make sure pets receive the highest quality of foods that are closest to what they would eat in the wild. Plus, the happier our animals are, the happier we are.

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Ellen Mahoney is a writer and radio producer. Email [email protected].

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