Lisa Barnett spent nearly a decade working in venture capital and spending a lot of time with companies that were solving chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease, illnesses people encounter in later years. Through that, she started to realize the critical need for high-quality, nutritious and fresh food from the beginning of life. After digging into the baby food category and talking to her sister, who just had her first baby, she quickly found that the grocery store brands just simply weren’t good enough.
Barnett grew up in an entrepreneurial household, and she has always felt drawn towards changing some of the everyday challenges women face. Being recognized as one of the ‘Women Changing the Food Industry’ by Well + Good, by Marie Claire as a ‘Power Woman of 2019, and by Forbes as 30 Under 30 in Venture Capital, she had spent her career investing and incubating companies all driven by the needs of the millennial generation. “And now this same group was starting to have children in mass, and struggling with products that hadn’t caught up with their expectations, needs, and lifestyle. There was a clear opportunity,” Barnett, now cofounder, President and CMO of Little Spoon, a fast-growing direct-to-consumer children’s food and nutrition company, shares with me.
Her co-founders, Ben Lewis, Angela Vranich, and Michelle Muller, are experienced veterans in the food and beverage industry. Looking at the opportunity to bring the antiquated baby and children’s food category up to the standards we have as consumers today, they all came together around this shared interest in disrupting a very sleepy industry and demand better for parents everywhere.
A report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found only 4 out of 80 baby and toddler snacks met nutritious standards. In addition, 50% of baby food snacks and 83% of toddler food snacks contained added sweeteners. “If you are a new parent starting out, it can be a very scary experience. You don’t yet know how to ‘be a parent’ let alone where to start and what to feed your child.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the first two years of life – when learning is constantly taking place – food preferences are also forming. Most are learned, but some are innate. A child’s food preferences directly affect eating behavior, which in turn is linked to overall health, wellness, and the formation of obesity. The food and beverage industry has used this knowledge to its advantage – healthy foods are advertised less than 3% of the time in comparison to their counterparts. This has a direct impact on children’s food preferences, considering food and beverage companies spend $2 billion dollars a year on food marketing campaigns directed at children.
Little Spoon, launched in 2018, also offers a unique community and parenting platform to support parents everywhere – Is This Normal – creating products with clear transparency and helping to evolve a dated parenting narrative that simply makes this life stage harder. According to Barnett, the shaming and ‘mom/parent guilt’ that parents are faced with for having basic questions, feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, or simply wanting a little extra time to recover mentally and physically before returning to work, needs to end. The platform also became the inspiration for Little Spoon’s recently launched Is The Normal? The Game.
“When you start with Little Spoon, you really join a collective of parents who are embracing a new culture and language around this life stage. At any point, you can join our digital community, have a 1:1 with a Care Team member about your child’s food needs, or submit an anonymous question to our panel of experts for extra support as you navigate parenthood,” adds Barnett. The pandemic accelerated the growth of Is This Normal, initially launched in partnership with Arianna Huffington of Thrive, mainly because parents were saddled with a very unique experience of maintaining their work-from-home job and having no access to childcare or the ability to send their kids to school, which turned them into 24/7 parents.
As of 2018, approximately 19 million millennial women had given birth to a child. This amounts to more than half (55%) of all millennial women in the U.S., per Pew Research Center’s report. Millennials bring unique brand expectations and diverse working households – most are dual income, strapped for time, and have taken on far more financial risk than generations past. “It’s no surprise these individuals faced a tremendous challenge balancing their careers and personal wellness alongside the new expectations of parenthood. The existing convenient options had not met the quality standards of this generation. It was either the shelf-stable processed baby food in a jar or preparing food yourself that became both time-consuming and exhausting.”
Barnett is adamant that parents shouldn’t have to choose between over-processed convenient food or super expensive, time-intensive healthy options. And they certainly shouldn’t have to sacrifice their career and mental health to put a meal on the table. Much of this is due to positive societal forces – more women are in the workforce, for example. But this is also a byproduct of the fact that this generation is saddled with more debt and fewer savings than the previous generation – both parents need to be working and are thus even more time-starved.
Since its launch, Little Spoon has shipped over 9 million meals across the U.S., saw revenue growth of over 300% since the beginning of the pandemic, and the excitement over the launch of its Plates has been overwhelming. “In the first week, we sold out; we had a waitlist. We had to stop advertising as we weren’t able to take on more demand – it surpassed even our wildest projections.”
Barnett and her team recently raised $22 million in Series A funding, with the participation of lead investor Valor Equity (Valor Sirens Ventures, VSV). VSV, the fund, is anchored by Starbucks and some other notable CPG (consumer packaged goods) and retail players who want to help bring change to retail and food technology. Valor also backs other successful food tech-lead brands in reaching modern-day consumers like Misfits Market and GoPuff.
“Fundraising is always challenging, pandemic or no, but fortunately, I had already built a relationship with our new lead investor, Jon, over the years and knew we shared some fundamental principles when it comes to building a company that is mission-driven. We share a joint philosophy to bring to market nutrition and food solutions that are high quality and accessible to people, and so we decided to partner up for our Series A, along with Kairos, a venture studio that identifies the problems facing millennials and builds companies to fix them, a true operational partner in Little Spoon,” concludes Barnett.
But the success of the Little Spoon doesn’t end here – they also launched the give-back program, #Passthelittleplate, where the company donated one plate for every plate sold and a program called “Little by Little” to help partner with employers to offer subsidized meals for children and babies in an effort to help the many families impacted by the loss of jobs and a lack of childcare, with partners including Amazon, and restaurant groups like Union Square Hospitality, Lettuce Entertain You, and La Colombe. They have also partnered with food banks in NYC that serve children, and on top of this, donated over $100,000 in Little Spoon meals to Feeding America food banks across the U.S. so those in need can feed their children free of charge.
Some might say it’s a drop in the ocean in what is needed to make meaningful changes in this industry, but every journey begins with a first step, right? Because small changes can make a big difference in the lives of our little ones.