Jill Robbins, founder of HomeFree, a business that makes organic, vegan, gluten-free, ready-to-eat whole grain cookies and coffee cakes free of common food allergens including peanuts, tree nuts, eggs and dairy, saw first-hand the problems that can be caused by processed, unhealthy food and came up with a solution for anyone who has allergies or wants healthier dessert alternatives. A mother of a child with food allergies and clinical psychologist, Robbins started HomeFree so that everyone can be included when snacks and desserts are offered. She also initiated an environmentally-friendly business, getting HomeFree officially certified as a B-Corporation by B Lab, a nonprofit organization that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems by creating a new class of corporations required to create benefit for society.
Additionally, taking the commitment to environmental responsibility even further, HomeFree received Non-GMO Project Verification of its newest line of gluten free allergy friendly mini-cookies. We sat down with Robbins to find out more about her experiences running a sustainable business and learned about her early childhood environmental aspirations.
You have said that you started HomeFree because your son was diagnosed with food allergies, and you wanted to offer alternative baked goods that would also include those with dietary restrictions. You were a clinical psychologist at the time. What did it take to go from that to launching and growing this business? At what point did you decide that being more environmentally responsible than the typical business needed to be part of the equation?
Leaving my work as a psychologist to start this company was a complete change, the only connection between the two being that both were to help people with emotional well-being. It was really starting from scratch – about baking, business, and manufacturing, motivated by the needs of children like my own. With regard to environmental consciousness, that has essentially always been important to me, at least as far back as age nine when I went for the first of five summers to an Audubon Society camp. In fact, my dissertation was on trying to understand people’s attitudes toward the environment. So it was no surprise to the people who know me that making our cookies organic was a priority to me. Similarly, when I sat down with our newly designed plastic cookie tray sample that looked great, and was just like what all the other cookie brands use, my reaction was something like, ‘Over time, how many of these will be in landfills? I don’t want to use these. What other options are there?’ And yes, we found another option. It was natural to me to make the various packaging decisions I made that were more environmentally conscious than standard in the industry.
A recent press release from HomeFree mentions that HomeFree cookie cartons are made by using biofuel and wind power. Can you discuss what this entails and how HomeFree is able to do this?
We don’t produce the cartons ourselves. Rather, we looked for a local source that would share our values. We were excited to find Two C Pack in Nashua, New Hampshire. They are a wonderfully environmentally-friendly manufacturer and great to work with otherwise as well.
How did you hear about and get involved with B Corp.?
I have started to speak with possible investors to better enable me to scale up our company. One of these introduced me to B Corp, and I immediately loved the concept. We were a natural fit and I wanted to support the movement, so I put in the time to apply.
The release also mentions that HomeFree demonstrates B Corp. values by ‘providing education and consultation, contributing to allergy-related organizations, offering a flexible work environment, and considering the environment in its production decisions.’ Can you describe the type of education and consultation services you provide?
I have been an ‘expert’ on television news across the country on food allergies and the psychological importance of inclusion, have given talks on baking without food allergens and on making sense of allergy warning labels, and have been a speaker at a number of events. One example was on helping summer camp staff understand and support the food allergy camper. I also write an occasional blog with a focus on education. Consultation has been primarily with food distributors and food service operators. For example, I consulted with a hotel chain on how to improve the experience of the food allergy family in interacting with their hotel chain. And of course, I am always happy to recommend to anyone some great HomeFree cookies that are healthy and award-winningly delicious for anyone, and also meet the special dietary needs of almost everyone.
Home Free also recently received “Non-GMO Project Verification” for its newest line of gluten-free, allergy-friendly mini-cookies. Can you explain why obtaining this certification is important to HomeFree and what it means?
Our products have always been non-GMO. That is important to me as an environmental issue and as a safety issue. Further, some people believe that the increase in corn and soy allergies may be related to the parallel increase in genetically modified corn and soy. That makes it all the more important for me, making allergy friendly cookies, to avoid GMO’s. We joined with the Non-GMO Project Verification efforts for much the same reasons as we did with becoming a B Corporation. We believe in the Non-GMO movement and in the rights of the consumer to have GMO’s and non-GMO’s labeled on packaging. We want to support the movement.