Oh Baby Foods: A National Presence Stems from Local Roots
Growing up, Fran B. Free knew she wanted to do something significant in agriculture. She also had a dream of turning her grandparents' plantation home into a bed and breakfast, making salsa from her own produce, and brewing her own beer. But, in 2008, when Free and her husband learned they would soon become parents, she began to reason that maybe breweries and babies weren't the best fit.
So, Free did what most expectant women do while embarking on the life-changing path of motherhood: she took a step back to consider her future and assess her values. During this time, she returned to her roots and increased her focus on sustainable farming and clean eating.
Really, these two values had been with her since childhood as she grew up on her family's farm in Dumas. In college, they motivated her to major in environmental, soil, and water science at the University of Arkansas and later travel to Central and South America to visit organic farms. They also were a force behind her lectures to universities about topics like women in agriculture and the creation of school gardens.
But when it came to the prospect of her own child, these values really hit home in a new and exciting way.
"I love to make, hoard, and can food," Free says. "And I asked myself, 'What will my child be eating?'"
Sure, conventional baby food was an option. However, as Free points out, the culinary selection for babies is traditionally fairly bland, even for someone with developing taste buds. In addition, baby food in general had become more about creating convenience for parents and full bellies for babies and less about nutrition and taste. With all of this in mind, Free set out to carve her own culinary path for her child, letting her future son or daughter's well-being and USDA organic farmers serve as her inspiration.
She researched, and she analyzed. And, she realized that no one in the industry was focused on the farmer.
So she wrote a business plan.
When her daughter, Lucy, was born in November 2008 (two weeks after Free finished her master's degree in agricultural economics, no less), Free's plan entered its next phase – a full-fledged, homegrown test kitchen, where Free created recipes with local produce and perfected the combinations of fruits, vegetables, and herbs she used. Free recalls this period of time fondly, as she and Lucy would often travel together to purchase produce from local farmers and bring them home in a refrigerated truck. This continued for three years, and, during that time, Free officially launched her business, Oh Baby Foods, on her daughter's first birthday.
Today, Free's kitchen creations still have local roots but are sold nationally. Her product line features six combinations of flavors, all incorporating organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are regionally sourced from U.S. farmers, and she plans to add four new flavors each year. The herbs she includes – ginger, lavender, and spearmint, to name a few – assist with a baby's digestion and circulation and provide what Free describes as "a culinary adventure for new eaters."
Ensuring that her products are made with organic ingredients is extremely important to Free. "What they put into their bodies really counts," she says of her tiniest customers. "Our products introduce parents to organics, which they may not have bought before. We like to think that there's a possibility of getting organic food to the whole family by starting with the baby."
And while Free stresses the importance of keeping organic ingredients in, she's also determined to keep genetically modified foods – or GMOs – out.
"Babies are sensitive," she says. "I'm not willing to give GMOs a chance until they're proven to be safe."
Free backs up this concern with research she conducted while earning her degrees. "I understand why they were developed, but the natural environment has already shown resistance," she says. "We're already seeing effects that weren't expected."
True to her feelings as a mother and a business owner, Free is proud to note that Oh Baby Foods is the first baby food maker in the world to verify that all of its products are non-GMO. She also points out that this trend is becoming increasingly important to consumers across the country. The interest in non-GMO has increased by 1,000 percent since 2010.
One of the biggest supporters of GMO labeling, Whole Foods, also happens to be Free's biggest customer. Her products are sold in almost 300 Whole Foods stores, and her company had its biggest week ever in their stores in January 2015. Still, Free is cognizant of where her products began – on the shelves of local stores like Harps Foods, Terra Tots, and Ozark Natural Foods in her own backyard of Northwest Arkansas. Today, Terra Tots and Ozark Natural Foods – both in Fayetteville – still stock Free's products, as does the Pinnacle Station Market in Rogers.
Nationally, Oh Baby Foods is sold in nearly 1,000 stores – a sure sign of the growing popularity of their products in an industry where taste is more than 2.7 times more important to consumers than price, according to Fayetteville company DataRank, with which Free partners for market research.
The growth has proven difficult for Free in two areas: finding enough produce suppliers to accommodate growing demand and the lack of a local processing facility in her home state. Because of this, Free has visited and added farms from across the country to her list of suppliers in an effort to keep up with the thousands of pounds of produce her products require each year. She needs 280,000 pounds of apples alone – an enormous increase over the 200 pounds she purchased in her first year of business.
Still, even if local farmers were able to meet her supply needs, the key missing link to producing her products close to home is the need for a local processing facility. "Everyone knows it needs to happen here," Free says. "But it's a multi-million dollar project, and no one has stepped up yet."
Because of this shortfall, Oh Baby Foods uses a production facility in California. But the company is still committed to harvesting 100 percent of its ingredients in the U.S., while purchasing as many regional ingredients as possible. Their definition of "regional" includes those ingredients that can be harvested within 300 miles of the company's home office or facility – a nice nod to the 300-mile radius that Free originally used during her first three years of local production.
And, make no mistake, these farms are important to Free, who has visited many of them personally. They all share a commitment to the environment and can take ingredients, like pumpkins, from harvest to the freezer in just two short hours.
Six years into the business, the company has grown right along with Lucy, who inspired her mother to start it all. She now shares taste-testing responsibilities with little brother Levi, and both serve as Free's biggest fans. Their evolving tastes have even sparked new inspiration – the introduction of a product line just for big kids that's soon to come.
And, while Free doesn't have the bed and breakfast she dreamed of originally (yet), she takes pride in knowing that what started in her Fayetteville kitchen is now a part of kitchens all across the country.
This is a sure-fire way to get kids to eat their veggies, turnips and Brussels sprouts included. It's an impromptu recipe that warms our home every fall and spring, and most of the ingredients can be purchased locally. Play with the herbs, the oils, the vinegars, and the roots to find the best combination for your family.
RELIABLE ROASTED ROOTIES
Recipe by Fran Free
- 4 teaspoons oil (coconut, olive, avocado, walnut, etc.), divided
- 1 teaspoon each: rosemary, thyme, sage, chopped (all fresh)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced a few grates of fresh nutmeg
- 1/2 pound turnips, about 3 medium
- 1/2 pound sweet potatoes, about 1 medium 3 carrots
- 1/2 purple onion, in wedges
- 1/4 pound Brussels sprouts, halved (about a handful)
- 2 teaspoons honey
- salt, as needed
- Preheat oven to 450°. Oil a large baking dish.
- In a small bowl, mix together two teaspoons oil with the rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, and nutmeg.
- Chop turnips, sweet potatoes, and carrots into large, bite-sized pieces, and put in oiled baking dish. Pour oil mixture over, toss, and roast in oven for 15 minutes.
- Toss onion wedges and Brussels sprouts with remaining two teaspoons oil and honey, add them to the already roasting veggies, and sprinkle all with salt.
- Roast an additional 20 minutes or so, stirring a couple of times, until you see brown and crisping edges.
- Enjoy. Share. Repeat.