Exclusive Q&A with Lauren Bush, Co-Founder, FEED Projects

"True human empathy and connection—and the level of dedication that can follow from that—comes from personal interaction." -- Lauren Bush, co-founder, FEED Projects

In 2006, fashion model, designer and activist Lauren Bush designed a bag to benefit the United Nations World Food Programme's (WFP) School Feeding program, which gives hungry children around the globe one healthy and nutritious lunch every day they go to school.

After traveling throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America as an Honorary Student Spokesperson for the WFP and visiting sites where the program was operating, Lauren was inspired to do something more. And she tapped into her own personal passion: designing.

Her first design was the FEED 1 bag, a reversible burlap and organic cotton bag that takes its cue from the WFP bags of beans, barley and rice that she saw on her travels. On one side, she stamped the phrase "FEED the children of the world." On the other side, she stamped the number "1" to indicate that each bag feeds one child in school for one year. It's functional, sustainably-produced by local women and bien sur, très chic. But more importantly, it feeds hungry kids. This bag and all the other bags and products of the FEED line are part of the solution. It's amazing to realize that built in to the bag's affordable $70 price tag is an entire year's worth of school lunches for one hungry child. Now that's a serious fashion statement.

And thus, in 2007, FEED Projects was founded in New York. And a social entrepreneur was born. Since then, Lauren and her team have sold enough bags to provide more than 60 million school meals to children around the world through the WFP. FEED has also joined forces with the US Fund for UNICEF to raise money to support their vitamin A and micronutrient supplements program, providing over 46,000 children with the essential nutrients they need to lead healthy lives.

I had a chance to ask Lauren some questions about her incredible journey from being an anthropology student at Princeton to becoming a social entrepreneur extraordinaire after she spoke at the United Nations last Thursday for International Women's Day.

You said that you got the call that changed your life when the World Food Programme asked you to be a student spokesperson. Was that what gave you the inspiration for FEED?

No, it didn't come until a year or two later, after traveling a bit with the WFP and learning about hunger and poverty and the solutions that are out there. And it really came from feeling a frustration that I couldn't communicate to young people a real way to get involved in the fight to end world hunger. So it was out of that frustration and thinking about what I could do to empower others, especially young people, to help end world hunger that I came up with the idea for the FEED bag.

Was there anything in your youth that gave an indication of what you would be doing now?

I was very entrepreneurial when I was younger. I loved craft fairs. I loved making and selling things. Also, my family volunteered with local soup kitchens and homeless shelters. So the entrepreneurship and giving back were always a part of my life, but I never combined the two sides until now.

You studied anthropology at Princeton. Did that knowledge help you on your journey to start FEED?

It helped in the sense that it reinforced and informed my passion for exploring different cultures and learning about different ways of life. I studied anthropology for the love of it, not for any career goal, but knowing it would be somewhat related to whatever I did.

You mentioned in your remarks today that traveling to Guatemala and seeing the effects of hunger firsthand really made an impact on you. Do you think that travel is necessary for someone to understand the scope of hunger and other social issues that seem so intractable and far away, even when sometimes they're right here at home?

I think so. You can read about it, you can see videos. The world is so interconnected that it doesn't always take a flight to empathize and connect. But true human empathy and connection—and the level of dedication that can follow from that—comes from personal interaction.

How did you finance the project at the beginning?

It was self-financed. We ordered 500 bags and I put in as much money as we needed for that initial order and the rest is history.

How did you meet FEED co-founder Ellen Gustafson?

She was working at the World Food Programme at the time. So I had this idea for the bag and she was the one internally who helped me get it out. And once the bag started selling and getting traction, she left the WFP and started working with me at FEED.

What was your biggest challenge starting FEED?

FEED just happened so organically. And it went smoothly probably because we didn't know any better. We just broke the rules in a million different ways. In the end, I'm glad we didn't go about things in the traditional way.

If you had to start it all over again, would you do anything differently?

I've learned lessons along the way, so I feel that if I started now, I'd be light-years ahead of where I was five years ago. But I feel like it's a journey and a process and I'm glad that I was a tad ignorant in terms of the traditional retail rules because FEED doesn't fit into those.

Who makes the school lunches for WFP?

WFP gives the schools a corn soya blend, which is the base of all the school lunches. And then there's this grassroots PTA-type system where local women—either teachers or parents of the kids going to a particular school—will come in to prepare big batches of this warm, nutrient-rich porridge using the corn soya blend, which is high in vitamin A and zinc. And it's high in calories, so if this is the only meal of the day for a child, which is sometimes the case, it is filling and they are getting their necessary daily caloric intake.

In what regions is FEED currently working?

We do bags specifically for Guatemala, Kenya, Haiti and Japan following the March 2011 earthquake. We have a bag coming out soon for India.

What other organizations are you working with besides WFP?

Most of what we give is to the WFP school feeding program, and they decide where the need is greatest. But we also do bags with UNICEF. And we've partnered with the Millennium Villages Project, which is a joint-project of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations Development Programme, and also Room to Read, which partners with local communities throughout the developing world to establish libraries.

What about the United States?

We've made a few bags in America and one in New York actually. Each FEED 10 NYC bag provides 10 meals to hungry New Yorkers through the Robin Hood Foundation, which fights poverty specifically in New York City. And later this year, we're coming out with a new FEED USA collection to help feed hungry Americans.

And you work with local artisans as well?

We love helping to sustain local, traditional artisanal crafts. They're not in all of our products, but in a good percentage, like our FEED Guatemala Bracelets, which are hand-beaded in Guatemala by Nest, a non-profit organization that empowers artists and artisans around the world, and our FEED Kenya Masai scarf, which is made from the iconic red and purple plaid Kenyan Masai tribal fabric.

What other causes are you interested in?

Women's issues are very important to me. And it goes hand in hand with what FEED is doing. Poverty and hunger are related to everything.

It seems that supporting girls is a main key to ending poverty. The animation "The Girl Effect" made that case so clearly.

Yes, the Girl Effect! The concept is huge. It's pretty much a known fact by now that supporting a girl and giving her a leg up is the solution.

Do you have any advice for a young social entrepreneur who has a great idea but little else?

Believe in your idea. Take feedback. But don't lose sight of what makes you love your idea. And don't be afraid to collaborate. If you see someone who's doing something similar, don't closely guard your idea. Go to that person or organization or company and just say, "I have a way to improve what you're doing." And see what you can do together.

To see a video of Lauren in action and help support FEED's campaign to end world hunger, visit FEEDprojects.com.

image courtesy FEED Projects