How To Make Veggies Fun For Kids with Michael Ferraro


Jonathan: Hey everybody. Jonathan Baylor back with another Sane Show and this is a special Sane Show because we always talk about on the show, Kermit the Frog, Kermit the Frog being on to something in the sense that Kermit used to tell us and still tells us that it’s not easy to be green.

And we’re like “Oh, blast!” Because being green – eating a lot of green leafy vegetables and non-starchy vegetables as we know is the single most important dietary component of a Sane Lifestyle. It’s just the richest source of nutritional therapy on the planet, but to Kermit’s point, sometimes it’s not easy.

Now I recently discovered an organization that is really solving that problem in a big way and solving it for the most challenging demographic to solve it for: kids. The company is called Grow Ums and I won’t spoil the surprise here but we are fortunate enough to have the founder and CEO Michael Ferraro joining us today to help us learn how to make it easy and fun not only for us but for our kids to be green. Michael, welcome to the show, brother!

Michael: Hey Jonathan. Thanks for having me.

Jonathan: Well Michael, I see that we’ve got all sorts of fun cartoon characters in the background over there at Grow Ums Headquarters and we’ll get into that in a second. But can you really quickly tell us your background and how you went from Little Michael to CEO of this very cool company that I’m excited to share with the audience.

Michael: Well none of it seems to make sense to me. I grew up as a third generation in the nursery and garden center business. I decided to go to school for Theater as my major and business is my background. I ended up in the investment banking business for about 14 years and then one day decided going back to my roots – no pun intended – maybe I could build a network when the Internet was out there. I could build a network that could help the nursery and garden center industry.

When I was a kid, I lived in Central New York State and there was always more snow than I was tall outside and it was cold as could be. I used to spend the winters– My dad had a greenhouse and the greenhouse was like 85 degrees in there, so I’d spend most of my time in the greenhouse. And it had these little pellets in there and I used to start his vegetable plants that he would sell in the spring time. And I would start them in this garden center in the winter.

So fast forwarding through years and years of doing all this stuff, we as a company – I formed this company to help the industry somewhat and we took a couple of different turns and one day it just dawned on me that I thought that we needed to come up with a way to teach kids to grow herbs and vegetables and to eat healthier.

This was before everyone started talking about childhood obesity. It just hit me one day: kids are getting fat. And I was looking at my kids playing their games and sitting around. They were getting lazy and so on and so forth.

And I thought how could we help them and at the same time come up with a way that they could stay engaged in their electronics and not have to leave them too far away because I guess it’s like us with our cell phones right now. It’s like if you’re not sitting on it you start freaking out.

But if we could get them captured by their games or electronics and actually teach them outside how to grow their herbs and vegetables and what to do with them, then it would lead them to eating better if they were growing their own food.

So that’s exactly what we did and we put together these packages that were based off of food that kids can resonate with like Pizza Gardens and Taco Gardens and Stir Fry Gardens et cetera and kids know that stuff.

So if we could put together like a Pizza Garden and have basil, oregano, bell peppers and tomatoes in one little garden kit that the kids can grow and suddenly they’ve got 200 tomatoes behind them and basil plants all year and so on and so forth, would they be interested in doing that?

And honestly my kids were a big help because one day I walked out and they were watching cartoons. I’m like, “What are you guys watching?” “We’re watching Rug Rats.” And I thought to myself, “Rug Rats.” What if we came up with some cartoon characters that actually taught the kids how to grow their herbs and vegetables outside and that’s exactly what we did.

So we came up with all these characters, [??]-Comichon, Captain Eggplant, Frank Cilantro, Elvis Parsley that come to life online in almost 125 videos that show these kids how to grow their herbs and vegetables from seeds every step of the way until they’re ready to harvest them and make a pizza out of what they’ve grown.

Jonathan: Michael, let me unpack this a little bit to our viewers and to our listeners because I really think it is ideas and companies and organizations like this that hold the key to ending the obesity and diabetes epidemics, absolutely because what we’ve done here – what you’ve done and what we need to do as a culture, as you’ve said, where are people currently at?

Where are our kids currently at? Our kids are currently online. Right? Kids will pay money or have their parents pay money to grow virtual gardens a.k.a. Farmville. Right?
So how are we getting kids to grow virtual gardens online and to pay to do that and we acknowledge that they are doing that. What if we could say hey, they’re doing that but what if we could learn from that and translate that into real gardens in real life?

What you guys have done is you get these seed kits in the mail and then you have a complementary gamified online experience that helps to go kids where they’re at to help instead of being like “Eat your vegetables, eat your vegetables, eat your vegetables,” get them invested, get them having fun, and that’s just such a different way to look at this problem!

How long did it take to go from this idea to what you guys have built today?

Michael: Probably – well it’s almost five years completely from the inception of the idea to right now. We first put it together. I tested it out with my own kids and said “Well, I might as well start right here at home.”

So I had my kids grow an eggplant and grow some eggplants actually I should say. I figured well, we’ll start with the bottom of the food chain as far as the vegetables go. Kids aren’t just sitting out there like “Hey, Ma, can we go to the grocery store and get some eggplants?”

So the whole experience – and I believe that experience learning is where we as humans remember everything. You can’t tell me much if anything about an Algebra test that you took even though you’re a brilliant guy. Right?

But you could tell me about an experience that you had when you were a kid either fishing with your parents or something like that and that experience never left you. And I could tell you just like I did about when I was ten years old working in my dad’s garden center and growing these vegetables. It’s never left me and here I am 40 years later. I just gave away my age.

But as far as the kids go, I had them growing it and suddenly the plant grew and they were just having a blast with it. Then next thing you know, the fruit came out and it was small and then “Hey, can we pick it now?” “No, not yet.” “Hey, can we pick it now?” “No, not yet. Did you guys water it today? When is the last time you fed it?”

And while I was doing all that stuff I was also doing research and I found out that 95 to 98% of the kids that would grow a vegetable once would actually eat that vegetable once. So now it was like okay, great. Let’s see how good this is, because by the time that eggplant got this big, it was time to pick it.

The kids’ eyeballs were like huge and they wanted to go right inside and fortunately for them, Mom went to culinary school so she knew exactly what to do. But here were my kids that were 9 years old and 11 years old that were eating eggplant that was mixed with tomatoes and capers and made an Italian dish called acompanado

And how are you going to get a kid to eat that when McDonald’s is right around the corner? No offense to them, but their marketing budget is a lot better than ours. Right?

So it came down to these cartoon characters and as I incorporated these cartoon characters into them, the kids just fell in love with them. The years have gone by now. We actually launched our first product – or launched the concept I should say – in Sacramento, California at the State Fair.

And we gave away– We put together these gardens and these cups and all that. We gave away close to 4,000 gardens in less than 48 hours of being at the fair. And the kids – they stayed there, they loved it and so far we have gone through our testing phase – almost a million children and never one returned the kit to us saying this just doesn’t work. We have a lot of stats behind the fact.

Just like one of your books where you’ve got all these statistics behind what people should eat and so many people out there are saying, “Hey, this is what you should do.” And we just give them the kit and say “Here. Do it. Have some.”

Jonathan: Well and really Michael, it gets back to such an important macro point for all of our viewers and listeners and that’s this concept of making meaning and how important that is to lifestyle change.

And to your point of story, that ties in perfectly. If we think about people who do effectively make lifestyle changes or have atypical lifestyles around nutrition, it’s always because it’s tied to some meaning or a story. Let me give you a concrete example.

Think of anyone with a religious practice which requires dietary restrictions like kosher or halal, or during Lent if you’re a Catholic. Or think about even a vegan or a vegetarian.

This is a very meaning and story-based decision. So if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, chances are there is a rich narrative in your mind as to why you do that and why that’s meaningful. And same thing for religious dietary practices. There’s a meaning to it. There’s a why behind it.

And by making growing your own vegetables and cultivating an actual garden and with the help of cartoon characters you’re creating that story. You’re creating that meaning for your children.

And then through that are– Again this is not a will power problem. This isn’t a brute force problem and that’s what we’ve been told for the last 50 years and we’re never going to solve the obesity and diabetes and childhood obesity epidemics by just beating “Eat more vegetables” into kids and this being aggressive in this eat less-exercise more dogma!

We’ve got to have creative, meaning-based empowering solutions like this. So I just get really excited about what you’re doing. So just step us through, as simply as possible what the basic experience is. So like if I wanted to get started with this, what do I do today?

Michael: Today you get a kit. You could go to the website. There are certain stores. We’re getting to roll it out into the retail stores in a hard launch in the spring. But you can go online to Growums.com and you can order kits. We’ve got several different types of kits that you can order from Pete, to [??]-Stocko to Stir Fry, Ratatouille, herbs, salad and we’ve got three new kits that are going to be coming out.

If you go online, you get the product. When you get the product, you go home, you register on the website. The cartoon characters immediately come to life from that point on and they tell you,

“You add water here. This is how your garden is going to grow. When you add the water, your pellets open up…” And the interaction with the kids starts immediately.

In 20 seconds, these kids are watching this wafer that looks like an inedible – it’s about the size of an inedible Oreo Cookie and it grows like this and becomes the soil they start their garden in. Then every ten days…

It’s pretty simple. If you watch these videos, they are all developed by PhDs in Horticulture and then they’re brought to me and my family and we dissect them to make sure that everything is perfect for kid’s experience and that it’s real gardening information.

And if you watch these videos every step of the way, they come out with a new series. And it will have you, as a little kid, you’ll be able to grow as good as a master gardener. No questions asked.

Jonathan: Michael, that’s brilliant and I think there’s another key thing here just from a human psychology perspective that I dig about this and I hope that our viewers and listeners can take away and apply to their own life, which is this concept of immediate gratification and seeing progress quickly.

Right? We live in an immediate gratification type culture. And one of the things that’s so powerful about this blending of the real physical world to actual gardening and these digital characters and what we’re seeing now with devices and wearable things is that we can take the advantages in the digital world which is immediately gratification. Right? and in a digital garden you could plant a seed and see it grow right away

And of course that’s not what’s going to happen in the real world, but it might at least keep your kids interested enough such that they can get that immediate gratification online and in some ways as you guys have engineered, in the real world. And that tides them over until they see those real world results. And I think that’s such a powerful model for all of us to do.
How can we figure out ways to use technology to help fill the gap between us getting started and then our seeing our results so that we keep our momentum going forward. And I think you guys have done a great job of doing that.

I know one other thing that is cool about your service is – of course it costs money – but the cool thing is that just from a pure economic perspective, the cost of the kit and then the yield of vegetables you actually get out of it – What are we looking at from that perspective?

Michael: Yeah. You know any time that you go to the store and you buy your own seeds, seeds are going to be inexpensive. There are seed starter kits that are out there, and ours are $10 or less. From a retail standpoint $10 or less. $10 for a Pizza Garden and you’re going to end up with probably two or three tomato plants. The types of tomatoes are going to yield anywhere from 50 to 100 tomatoes at least for each plant.

Then you’re going to end up with the basil plants that you want. The oregano plants, etc. and all of that is going to yield you over $100 worth of herbs and vegetables for $10. And like you said, it’s not going to be immediate every step of the way, but that’s what the videos are for, to keep that interaction going.

It kind of wakes you up to at the same time and says, “Hey, did you feed them? Have you watered them?” It becomes your project as a kit.

Jonathan: And Michael that’s why I get so excited about this because it’s just a great example of there’s this common knowledge that it’s too hard to eat healthy. It’s too expensive to eat healthy. It doesn’t taste good. It’s not fun.

Like this is nonsense that we’ve been fed by the people who are feeding us the toxic non food that is causing the diabetes and obesity epidemics and any time I would just encourage our viewers and our listeners that you hear these “Just try harder, or this “Just oh it’s too expensive,” like look out there for companies like Grow Ums. Look out there for resources that are saying, “Look. The bottom line is that up until the previous three generations, folks afforded healthy food. Folks ate plenty of natural foods.

Folks could do it. We didn’t have an obesity epidemic. We didn’t have a diabetes epidemic. You are being sold a bag of myths which is that this is hard and complicated. It isn’t! And I think it’s so cool that we have companies like yours Michael that are coming to the surface and saying, “Look! This isn’t hard! Not only is it not hard but it can be fun and here’s how.” So what’s next for you and for Grow Ums?

Michael: Well like I said we’re going to be doing a complete retail rollout next year. You’ll be able to see it advertised on TV. We’ve got more products that are going to be coming down the pipeline that are going to help enhance and continue the experience with the kids.

We’ve got a whole gaming engine that we’re going to be putting online. You had mentioned Farmville. I do something like that that is actually giving you education at the same time when the kids are not outside, they’re inside. They’re having a good time and maybe they can convert some of their game points into real products.

And then we’re really hoping for long term. We’re really hoping for a cartoon series about this world beneath the leaves in your garden that really reinforces a healthier lifestyle and these fun characters that are going to take you on these great adventures.

Jonathan: Michael, this is just absolutely fabulous and folks, you heard it here first! So in the coming years when Grow Ums takes over the V world in a positive way and gets us back in the garden and gets our kids having fun eating vegetables, remember you heard it here first on the Sane Show!

Michael Ferraro, thank you so much for joining us today. This has just been a delightful conversation and I so appreciate what you’re doing. I know it’s going to make a big difference in the lives of millions of people.

Michael: Jonathan, thanks for having us. It was great.

Jonathan: Well viewers and listeners, I hope you enjoyed this chat as much as I did again. Our guest today is the inspiring and brilliant if you ask me, Michael Ferraro. He’s the president and CEO of Grow Ums. You can learn more about Grow Ums at growums.com.

And remember, this week and every week after, stay sane. Chat with you soon!