Danielle Schwab never planned to move back to her native Maplewood, but when the pandemic hit, she decided to head home to quarantine. With restaurants across New Jersey closing, she began to wonder how she could help local farmers who worked with those now-closed restaurants redirect their food so it would not go to waste.
Schwab began connecting with farms and small businesses to give consumers an alternative to shopping at their local grocery store. In April, she launched Illuminate Food, a business that delivers locally sourced food from farms in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania right to the doorsteps of consumers in select locations. Each week, a new box is filled with different produce, bread, protein and other locally sourced foods.
Farms like Riverine Ranch in Asbury (Hunterdon County) and Blue Moon Acres in Pennington (Mercer County) supply produce for Schwab’s weekly boxes. “People forget that New Jersey is the Garden State,” says Schwab. “I’m just trying to shed a light on producers in the state because they’re really talented and make amazing products.”
We caught up with Schwab to ask about her new business and the importance of buying locally sourced foods.
Table Hopping: Did you have a background in the food industry before starting Illuminate Food?
Danielle Schwab: I have a background in global trade and supply chains. I went to school for economics, so I was very interested in how things move around the world and get to consumers but I hadn’t really focused on food until the last couple of years.
TH: Does your economics background come into play with your business?
DS: It’s funny because everything I’ve ever done is international and now I’m very focused on local. My background in distribution and logistics and moving things from where they’re produced to where they’re consumed has influenced how I run my business.
TH: What local farms do you collaborate with?
DS: We source from farms in New Jersey, a little bit in New York, and a little bit in Pennsylvania. I connected with a company called Zone 7 [in Ringoes] and the founder, Mikey Azzara, has the same goal as myself, which is to strengthen the local food system. He plays the role of the distributor in that he’s picking up from the farms. Because my offering has milk, cheese, bread, specialty items and protein, I do all of that sourcing on my own and leave the bulk of the produce to him.
TH: So you personally reach out to places other than farms for specialty items?
DS: Yeah, that’s me. I’m always interested in all makers of products. I’m all about agriculture, but I’m also just about supporting small business and small scale producers, and helping people know where their food is from. So anybody who has a product that’s local, I’m absolutely interested in involving them and highlighting what they make.
TH: And items in the boxes change weekly?
DS: The boxes are totally different every week and sometimes have a theme. Everything is kind of based around the recipe included, so [last week] the recipe was a cold soba noodle salad. I wanted to put the vegetables in there that make sense for that, like cabbage, scallions, and then I’m giving everyone soba noodles. There’s a lot of fruit in season right now so we alternate between berries and stone fruit. I just try to give a diverse selection of whatever is seasonal.
TH: What can people look forward to in the fall seasonal box?
DS: I did a granola in last week’s box called Lazy Susan’s granola (based in Ledgewood). Then, it turned out that she uses local maple syrup in her granola, so I’m going to work with the syrup company, and put together a recipe for the fall with that. There’s lots of pumpkin recipes to look forward to, savory pumpkin recipes, butters, and lots of apple stuff. I’ve been doing fresh pasta and baked good items as an add on and those offers will continue in the fall.
TH: It’s unique that you decided to include recipes in the boxes as well. What made you want to do that?
DS: I really feel like if you don’t know how to cook what you’re getting, you’re not going to keep coming back. You might not know what to do with some of the vegetables that you’re getting. So I thought it would be important to include some recipes to get people excited about the different seasonal produce items, like when we did rhubarb. Maybe people hadn’t cooked with rhubarb before so we sent around a recipe for a crumble. On top of the recipes, I have a Facebook community for my members to share recipes because a lot of them are really great cooks and can share with each other how they’re using stuff.
TH: You also have a podcast called Illuminate Your Plate. What do you typically discuss on there?
DS: I try and keep it up once a month and have guests that are in another part of agriculture so we can continue to expand the conversation for people about where their food comes from. I really wanted to help people get an idea of what farming is like and what it takes to make good quality food.
TH: Between that, the boxes, and food blogging, you’re probably very busy!
DS: Yeah! I’ve never done anything like this before, starting my own business. Being an entrepreneur and creating something from scratch is super exciting. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s mine to shape, and that’s a big deal for me.
I can really expand what people are getting in front of them as conscious consumers. Sometimes people just go to Whole Foods because they don’t know where else to go. Offering another alternative to that, but also making it accessible for people, is something I feel really strongly about.
TH: Your business is also very timely, especially with the food industry going through such an extensive change.
DS: Things have really been shaken up. My business and a couple other things going on in the food system during this time is actually a really good thing. I don’t think we want to go back to normal where your food is really cheap, but you cannot vouch for the quality or the condition in which it was produced. For example, when you buy lettuce from your farm or farmer’s market, it’s going to last much longer, so there’s some real practical quality in eating locally sourced food.
Illuminate Food delivers weekly farm boxes to South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn, Short Hills, Livingston, Madison, Chatham, Montclair, Bloomfield and Morristown. Consumers can pay for a one-time box or for a seasonal subscription. For more information, e-mail [email protected].Click here to leave a comment