When technology entrepreneur Alex Cardona was growing up in gritty Washington Heights in Manhattan, the furthest thing from his mind was educating elementary and middle-schoolers about consuming healthy foods grown locally, and the concept of alleviating the long-standing challenges rooted in the global food system was a discussion not held at the family dinner table.
In a one-bedroom apartment with two sisters, the food wasn’t entirely limited to, but keyed predominantly on a fairly typical lower-income cultural trinity of rice, beans, and meat. “For us,” says the now 43-year-old Cardona, “our food retailers were mainly the butcher, the baker, and the bodega. Being a first-generation citizen I didn’t really know much about other types of food until I would go off every year to visit the family farm in Colombia, my parents’ home country. There I would see and enjoy this incredible wealth of fruit trees and vegetables.”
Skip ahead about 35 years later and Cardona is chairing a farm to school program that links up the Princeton Montessori School, the Northeast Organic Farming Association New Jersey chapter (NOFA NJ), the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, and the farmers from Cherry Valley Coop. Princeton Montessori received a $39,000 planning grant from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to expand the school’s farm to school pilot program to other area schools.
The plan is to develop a sustainable farm to school curricular program for early childhood through middle school students (ages 8 to 14) that will ultimately be replicated in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district. Like a lot of ambitious ideas, this one had modest beginnings.
“We started with just a handful of children four years ago, and now we have a chance to reach more than 10,000 students in the greater Princeton area,” says Cardona, whose children Nicholas, 8, and Zarah, 11, are both students at Princeton Montessori. “This just exemplifies the value of a community public-private partnership that invests in our children and in local farmers such as Cherry Valley Coop.”
The “guy on the ground” for the program, working directly with the students, is Alec Gioseffi, president and founder of Cherry Valley Coop. For the students, it’s not a matter of clicking on the Chromebook, distilling, and regurgitating information. It’s truly a hands-on, boots-on experience.
Gioseffi, now a farmer, was formerly a chef at the renowned Eno Terra restaurant in Kingston. “This is the real deal,” he says. Students help survey fields for drainage methods, build greenhouse structures for winter production, and preserve the harvest through fermentation. Participating in the food production cycle gives children a deeper connection to the food they eat and makes them ecologically conscious consumers for the future.”
In the colder months, says Princeton Montessori science teacher Michelle Jacob, “preserving the harvest” includes making and “jarring” fermented Kimchi and growing foods such as lettuce in tunnels and greenhouses. Says Jacob: “The students have even assisted in the construction and of those tunnels and greenhouses.”
She adds that in addition to the hands-on tasks the students perform, they also think about, reflect on, and suggest solutions to the business and logistical challenges that farmers face. “We devote some of our curriculum time to considering things like how do they make ends meet, how do they deal with food safety issues, what’s entailed in dealing with open space, and the uncertainties of varying terrains and topography, and, importantly, how do they begin to arrive at solutions.”
Students, she emphasizes, do get to sample the vegetables they have helped nurture and grow, such as various kinds of lettuce, root vegetables, carrots, beans, and parsnips.
The program is still in its infancy, with activities both at the Montessori School and at Cherry Grove farm. A more detailed playbook is being formulated that will serve as a working template for the West Windsor-Plainsboro schools — and possibly for a number of other school districts, including urban ones like Trenton, Camden, and Newark.
The role that Alex Cardona played in kick-starting this program doesn’t rest solely in his successful completion of the USDA grant, but in his entrepreneurial-driven and somewhat counterintuitive journey to get there.
Cardona says that growing up in a tough neighborhood, where drug dealers were not the most positive role models, also drove him to take education seriously — with strong daily reinforcement from his parents, who set strict curfews and tight social limits. “It was tough, yes, but it was also a hard-working blue-collar community. I saw how hard my dad worked at his factory, where he still works, and he emphasized to all three of us that we needed to work to create the best opportunities for ourselves. He didn’t direct me to any one industry, and I didn’t have any specific interest in food or technology, but he made it clear that I had to use education as my way out.”
Life there in the Heights was at times harrowing but had frequent joys, an interesting combination of “fighting and festivities.” In addition to required nightly family dinners and a general embrace of culture, he says, there was a regular procession of feasts, celebrations with family and friends, and lots of Dominican and Colombian music. He never took up an instrument but he did learn to dance — “no dance, no dates you know.”
At George Washington High School he realized that a broad academic track was an avenue to becoming economically successful and independent.
Cardona wound up at SUNY Albany, which he says was not only an excellent school for business but at the time was voted by a national magazine as one of the top party schools in the country. “Let’s just say I partied a lot and I did not make the dean’s list my freshman year. I got on track the next year.”
When he graduated in 1998 with a degree in Spanish civilization and arts and a minor in business, he went into SUNY’s MBA program, majoring in the relatively new field of management information systems. “I well remember taking on business cases like Amazon. Back then, in our eyes, Amazon was just waiting to flame out after 10 years of operating without a profit.”
In the early 2000s Cardona joined a consulting firm doing work for the Dupont Corporation on enterprise-level crop protection. Within two years the company (which became Accenture) reassigned him to Germany. “I grew to love the country, culture, and people; I found that people were so inclusive and welcoming. It was just different … smaller cars, smaller parking spots, smaller portions, which changed up my thinking on food. And meeting people from Turkey, Sweden, Italy, India, it was unexpected and special.”
He also met his wife, Sandeep Kaur, who as a descendent of farmers grew up in the “breadbasket,” the Punjab region of India. In 2006 they returned permanently to the United States and were married, and he began to appreciate the variety of fresh foods that Sandeep utilized in food preparation.
“Our food culture is to consume as much as possible locally, organic or organically grown, know as much as possible where our food comes from and who grows it,” Cardona says. “My wife and daughter are vegetarian. My wife loves to cook meals from scratch on weekdays and weekends despite the busy lives we lead as working parents because we value healthy eating. ” Kaur works for Slalom, a company that does IT consulting for the pharmaceutical industry.
In 2009 the economy took a huge recessionary hit, and Cardona sensed that no one was truly safe. With that in mind he formed SKC Group, an agriculture-directed, joint-venture company with two partners, both natives of India. His decision was accelerated by his son Nicholas’s asthma and allergies, which had the twin effect of forcing him to reconsider the impact of his overseas travel and consider all of the interlocking agricultural and nutritional issues that he might help alleviate.
“Our idea was to build customized software from scratch and bring that to farmers, primarily in Uganda,” he says.
Uganda’s remoteness and related lack of Internet connection made a mobile app a necessity. Through their Grains Chain mobile app, developed within three months, SKC was able to help the client buy corn in large scale quantities for thousands of other farmers — working offline and online — and to track payments and inventory, and track exactly where the corn was in the cycle, meaning was it shelled, was it being milled. The app helped eliminate the gaps that hindered the farmers’ production and shipping with optimal market times.
“This made it easier for buyers to buy more and sellers to sell at higher prices,” says Cardona.
Cardona and his partners soon realized that scaling the company in Africa was not an easy thing. They turned their attention the U.S., where they were able to secure new clients, but the scalability challenge reared its stubborn head again. Humbled and somewhat overwhelmed by the litany of business, logistical, and cultural obstacles, Cardona launched another digital initiative, 47 Farms, in 2014. It was an ambitious concept that actually worked, but it was undercapitalized. “The idea was to make it like Amazon, like an AirBnB where any farmer can come in, sell products, retail or wholesale, with the ability to collect on-line payments through the platform. They could also manage their inventory and we’d help market their product.”
Says Cardona, “We had 10 farmers and we did it for a year, but it goes back to the fundamentals of profitability…how long can you go before you need to be in the black and be on a sustained run in that direction. Amazon could afford to do it for 10 years. But I can see 47 Farms eventually succeeding.”
Cardona ultimately looked hard at the cost of grubstaking his ventures during the previous four years and the inherent challenges of introducing a new technology solution to the demographically evolving farmers area. The average age of farmers nationally is 59.5, but newer organic farms that skew younger are coming on stream. “Figuring out how to create value for them, individually and collectively is an ongoing proof of concept thing.”
He began a new position at Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2017. He is part of a team that does advanced planning and optimization of biological medicines for the medium to long term. The team uses technology and analytics to help ensure there is enough life-saving medicine to supply patients across the world.
To Cardona, his post-Accenture experience has been one that left him grasping for answers where there were no obviously right ones. “There were several times,” he says, “that I wondered if I was making the right decisions, really questioning myself. I think maybe you just have to go through the pain and frustration to better understand yourself and prepare to make real your vision. Joining BMS in such an important position is exciting, and it also gives me the work/life and financial stability to help guide important initiatives like the Farm to School program.”
Cardona is eagerly anticipating the chance to submit a more comprehensive follow-up implementation grant, partnering with a group like NOFA (the Northeast Organic Farming Association), or the Cherry Valley Coop or other school districts. “I would love to see Cherry Valley Coop meet the needed requirements by the end of June, which would make it possible to then put through the implementation proposal.”
Cardona says he also would like to help the next generation of farmers use technology to their advantage and collaborate with each other — and with students.
“I look back at these four years and it’s easy to get stuck in the exhausting aspects of launching two ventures,” he says. “Not to be up on a soapbox, but I realized there were strong linkages in deep rooted issues across our agricultural, health, and food systems. These issues will require radical changes in mindsets, innovation, and long-term applications.
“I think we’re just getting started.”
This story was originally published in the January 2019 Princeton Echo.