For Jimena Flórez, “organic” and “fair trade” are more than buzz words on packaging and containers signaling trendy and often higher priced food products. The company she started four years ago in her native Columbia uses sustainably grown and harvested natural products to produce a growing array of healthy foods. Her Chaak Snacks are improving the quality of life for an astounding chain of people spanning cultures, countries and continents.
Named for the Mayan God of Rain and Agriculture, the Chaak lineup includes healthy baked products and fruit snacks, all produced with organically grown fruits, grains and other natural ingredients. Flórez noted Chaak’s brownies, made from cacao, and muesli cakes, produced using a healthy grain mixture, are flour-less, gluten free, naturally sweetened and contain vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients. With children a primary focus of the business, along with adults and underserved communities with health and nutritional problems, the familiar snack format makes it easier to get people to eat what’s good for them.
Flórez’ vision has led to farmers growing cacao in a sustainable way and learning how to manufacture and market products using their harvest to control their economic destiny and earn more to support their families. Consumers in the United States and around the world are now enjoying better health by eating the tasty treats created by Chaak Snacks instead of sugar and artificial ingredient-laden junk food.
A natural curiosity and a desire to see and experience other places led Flórez to explore beyond Columbia’s borders and pursue graduate studies in Germany and Australia. As she researched and analyzed the impact of economic development projects in developing countries as part of her Master’s Degree in Environmental Economics, Flórez began to form a vision and a business plan.
She realized that people like farmers back in Columbia needed more than charitable contributions to maintain their existence. She also recognized an opportunity to build a food chain that would benefit people on both ends of an incredible and sustainable network.
Many young men were leaving the countryside to seek work in Columbia’s cities, often finding few opportunities. The impact of years of fighting by militants against her country’s government and the violence associated with the planting and harvesting of coca leaves to fuel the illegal drug market added danger and uncertainty.
“I realized it was not just a problem of growing food sustainably and profitably but also finding a way to get products made from healthy food sources to people with nutritional problems and diseases like cardiovascular conditions caused by poor eating habits,” said Flórez. “There had to be a way to get the food industry and the health industry to work together to contribute to better public health.”
The program she started gave the Columbian farmers the knowledge they needed to create businesses out of their own resources, including the benefits of farming their cacao in an organic and sustainable way. Learning how to turn their raw cacao pods into powder and liquid forms to sell to companies making chocolate and other products helped them earn more income from the same resources by controlling a greater portion of the production process.
Her success led to a White House invitation, meeting President Barack Obama at a reception celebrating top female social entrepreneurs. Flórez was one of only five chosen worldwide. Doors soon began to open, and Flórez became a “Jersey Girl” basing the U.S. operations of her Chaak Healthy Snacks Food Company in Bridgeton through her connections with the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University.
Created 10 years ago to help New Jersey food companies grow and prosper, the Center works with Flórez to manufacture her products at Rutgers and supports the introduction of Chaak products to new consumers and markets.
“In parts of Columbia, we found children were going blind because they lacked enough Vitamin A in their diets; we can taylor our products based on the nutritional and health needs of individual populations,” Flórez concluded. “While we are focused on creating innovative products, they have to be recognizable and non-threatening. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be a sacrifice, it can be enjoyable. Does eating a chocolate flavored brownie sound like sacrifice?”
(Chaak Healthy Snacks can be purchased online at usa.chaaksnacks.com.)