NOSH Voices: Disruptive, Cultured Food at the Daily Table

About the Author: Shane Emmett is the CEO of Health Warrior, a packaged food company on a mission to make radically convenient, real food and positively influence the diet and exercise habits of western civilization. Before moving to the food industry, Shane worked as an attorney. He encourages all to please considering donating to our collective future at:

What if I told you there was a beautiful grocery store where, should you shop there day after day, week after week, you would likely reduce your and your family’s risk of obesity and diabetes, and reduce the risk of the cardiovascular diseases that are the number one killer of Americans. You would probably lose weight and look and feel great. What if I told you it was a beautiful store, with high quality prepared meals, fresh produce, sweet potatoes, and poultry, and high quality shelf stable food. That this gleaming clean store comes complete with a first-rate rock and roll and rhythm and blues playlist and highly motivated, helpful, and genuinely happy employees. Employees that quietly offer each other fist bumps while making the store hum.

Would you shop there? I would.

I saw the future of food in Dorchester, Massachusetts and its name is the Daily Table. It is decidedly all of the above. But it’s more: it is also a not-for-profit in an area of over-indexed poverty and massive challenges. So, in addition to being a first-class rocking grocer that has stripped away all unacceptable forms of junk food (that’s right, they simply don’t sell bad food), our hero happens to offer exceptional value to the community it serves by operating as a not for profit – a not for profit with a runway to sustainability and scalability. The Daily Table offers prices and selection such that if you were feeding your family with public assistance dollars (i.e., SNAP, WIC), you could all enjoy 2,000 calories a day of high quality, delicious food. Food that makes you better, not worse. The market also happens to hire exclusively from the neighborhood, creating jobs, bringing in devoted local customers, and building tremendous good will and dignity within the neighborhood.

We have all heard too much about health care lately. Deductibles and reimbursables and all the pain and heartache attendant. As Doug Rauch, Founder of the Daily Table (the former President of Trader Joe’s) remarked recently: “The absolute fastest way to fix health care is to fix our American food.”

This idea was the genesis of my recent pilgrimage to experience Doug and his teams’ good work. I can report that he is onto something big.

Availability. If there is one lesson that has stuck with me since jumping into the world of food six years ago, it is that humans buy and eat what is available. What is at checkout. What is on an endcap. What has a shiny TPR tag. What is calling to us with that siren song of an off-shelf display: “come here, Odysseus! Buy 10 for $10 of this delicious sugar bomb cereal for your kids when you get back to Ithaca!” We are fish in a retail barrel and many stores surround children with more sugar than a golden ticket to Mr. Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In America, 96 percent of households eat cookies. 68.8 percent of households are overweight and 35.5 percent are obese. Now, I am not blaming the cookies. Maybe we should blame them, and their friends, soda, candy, junk cereal, and chips. There are others who would blame the households. I don’t buy that, either. But I can blame the availability.

The Daily Table doesn’t make the cookies and friends available. All of their dignified foods represent the best of the best, as chosen by the most qualified experts on food and nutrition from the likes of Harvard and MIT (n.b., not chosen by the latest and greatest and most likely ridiculous diet book trending on Amazon). Real experts. Consider this idea for a moment – they simply choose not to offer food that does not rise to the standards set by the people who know best. At first, to me, having logged my first 10,000 hours in grocery stores, this seemed radical. And then it seemed obvious.

Paul Graham recently wrote that when humans develop broad bad habits that are destructive on a species-wide level (he calls them addictions) they – we — have a unique ability to develop antibodies to combat and defeat them. We call these antibodies “customs”  and they save humans from humans, time and again. Graham presents the example of cigarettes — it took 100 years for human customs to reject this particular addiction.

“In the last 20 years, smoking has been transformed from something that seemed totally normal into a rather seedy habit: from something movie stars did in publicity shots to something small huddles of addicts do outside the doors of office buildings.”

He notes we are now addicted to technology, and technology is only getting better at addicting us. We are certainly addicted to bad food.

Michael Pollan pegs the problem of over-fed and under-nourished Americans to the ~1950’s, when the nitrogen from our bombs was fully integrated as inputs for our soil, producing food to be harvested and then stripped to its barest form in the interest of convenience and margin, at the expense of health and well-being. So, judging by the antibody development continuum of our history with tobacco and nicotine addiction, we may have some time to go for food customs to right the ship. But normal in the statistical sense (e.g., it is now normal to be overweight and experience diabetes. Insanely, this generation of kids is likely to be the first generation with shorter lifespans than their parents) is unacceptable for this current addiction. It is leading to an epidemic of food-based cardiovascular disease. We need our human normal to be functionally normal. It’s been about 70 years.

There are signs of change. Doug and the Daily Table built their lighthouse in the heart of a great American city that needs them. We all need them. This is not the end of our culture accepting unacceptable junk food endcaps, and it may not be the beginning of that end, but perhaps we find the Daily Table at the end of the beginning. The end of the beginning of a not abnormal, perhaps cyclical, very human, but by any sane measure unacceptable self-destructive hiccup. Imagine the possibility that the future of food is not all that complicated. That it is radically obvious. That sugar laden kids’ cereal towers will soon go the way of the Marlboro Man. That it is not a new app, new processing technology, or new macro-nutrient diet that will offer salvation, but the timeless manifestation of collective human achievement, marching forward.

At Project NOSH and BevNET we pride ourselves on having a robust network of food and beverage entrepreneurs, industry insiders and advisers. To that effect, NOSH Voices is a series of columns by respected experts to provide a spectrum of points of view from within the community. Interested in contributing as a NOSH voice? Contact the Editors.

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