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Christa Essig — Head of the Farm To Table Program at Google Food

Women In Food Tech #2

Photo Credit: Christa Essig

When Christa Essig talks about her childhood, it feels like she was destined to pursue a career in food.

“I remember when I was a kid, I used to go to Michigan during the summer with my family. We would go on hikes to pick fruits and berries directly from the trees. It was amazing!”, gushes Christa.

She grew up in Chicago, a city known for its basketball team and windy weather, but also for its food deserts. The USDA defines a food desert as a region without easy access to produce and healthy food, largely due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers markets. While Christa was raised eating fruits and vegetables, others weren’t quite so lucky. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor’s Degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition, Christa started her career path as a nutritionist in the Greater Chicago Area. Within a few months, she quickly came to realize that the lack of fresh produce in the area would greatly limit her potential impact. With this in mind, she also started to take note of the socio-economic inequalities that stemmed from the abundance of food deserts in Chicago. This moved Christa to take action. After moving to Atlanta and finding similar issues, she took action locally by helping to launch a number of new farmers markets and community gardens, then wanted to explore global food system issues related to environmental health impact and access to healthy food. She understood that government programs could also play an important role in creating a fair food system and she enrolled at Emory University to obtain a Masters in Public Health, with a focus on global environmental health. At Emory, she conducted extensive research on pesticide exposure in Costa Rica and access to healthy food in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area.

Upon receiving her masters, Christa continued her interest in advocating for solutions to food deserts and was given the opportunity to join the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Her mission: design programs and policies that address the food environment and bring healthy food to local communities through the lens of healthy community design and the built environment. This work included working as an intermediary between the CDC and the USDA to look at how the two agencies and their programs can better align and support each other to support healthy food environments. While in government she also looked closely at the public health impact of farm policy.

In 2013, Christa packed her bags and moved out west to California. She began working as an independent consultant for organizations such as the Prevention Institute and the National Asian Pacific Network to Eliminate Health Disparities. She then joined School Food FOCUS as their National Procurement Initiative Manager, and worked on bringing antibiotic-free chicken to schools and hospitals. After 2 years in the Bay Area, her career took a new turn when she was hired to join Google’s food program through Bon Appetit Management Company at Google. While the program’s primary goal is to feed Google employees Christa realized that it was most important to feed them nutritious and healthy food.

“Food at Google has existed since the beginning of Google, even before it became an official department. We hired a Chef before hiring a Human Resources Manager!”, affirms Christa.

Indeed, Google quickly understood that meals were a crucial part of any Googler’s day. At Google, food is considered a “casual collision” that brings people together around a shared interest. As Google grew, so did their food department; taking on greater responsibilities and tackling more issues. Soon, the program’s goal wasn’t only about sharing delicious and healthy food with its employees anymore. Google Food’s mission includes putting sustainability first. “We look at where the food comes from, what is in it, farming practices, and social implications”, explains Christa.

To support this agenda, initiatives ensure sustainable procurement and resource efficiency in Google Food’s operations. Employee interest grew and led to the development of a new project that aimed to allow employees to engage even more with the food they eat, thus, the “Farm To Table Program” was born. Christa’s role was to set the program’s standards and lay the foundation for it to be implemented not only at the Mountain View headquarters, but also at Google campuses around the world.

Cafe garden at Google’s HQ in Mountain View.

To lay this foundation Christa first had to answer the fundamental question of what “farm to table” even meant. The term “farm to table” has a history of being inappropriately overused in recent memory with sustainability becoming a new marketing trend. Christa wanted the program to bring real value on the local and global level to both Googlers and their communities.

“The Farm To Table Program’s goal is to engage people on where their food come from, how it is grown and why it matters.”

At Google headquarters Christa helps oversee food production onsite through cafe vegetable gardens where products are used in the cafes on campus. Employees are given the opportunity to volunteer in the cafe gardens and in community gardens where they can grow their own food, run by the living environments program. She has also created partnerships with local farms to bring fresh produce to Google’s kitchen, and organized educational tours where employees can learn about how their food is grown. People are engaged and thousands of people volunteered with the campus Farm To Table projects. Other campuses around the world have also implemented Christa’s program in their own way. For instance, in Dublin, Google employees have a rooftop vegetable garden, and in Dubai, they support water efficient agriculture in the desert.

Googlers visiting a local farm.

In addition to supporting regional markets and engaging local communities, Christa thinks that technology will also play a crucial role in solving our food system’s inefficiencies. The “Farm To Table” Program is innovation oriented and often beta-tests new technologies. A good example is the Leafy Green Machine, a hydroponics indoor farm setup in Google’s headquarters backyard. The Leafy Green Machine is built from up-cycled refrigerated freight containers. Plants are grown vertically, under LED pink lights and without soil. The farm provides enough herbs to supply many of the cafes on campus! This innovative farming has been expanding in the past 5 years and allows for the production of plants year round that grow with less water and no pesticides. While this technology has become more prevalent in recent years, the market has had a history of being unstable. Early indoor farming companies went bankrupt because of high costs associated with components, specialized labor and energy. With every emerging market, failure is often the first step to success and early adopters like Google can play an important role.

“At Google, we aren’t afraid of taking risks”

Google is one of the biggest companies in the world, and great power comes with greater responsibilities. Christa thinks that Google, as a thought leader, has a duty to share information and partner with other organizations that are conducting similar programs in order to bring sustainability to our food system. Through the Farm To Table Program, she has had the opportunity to support local farms, and to partner with NGO’s, tech companies and prestigious universities such as Stanford.

While there isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to saving our food system, Christa realizes that it’s a team effort. Governments, non-governmental organizations, companies and individuals need to work together to make sustainability their primary goal

“We are all in this together, this is why we need to keep on growing this learning community”

This article is part of a series centered on women in FoodTech. With women as a common thread, this article series is focusing on people and companies that are finding innovative ways to bring sustainability to our current food system.