A new company — built on two overlapping visions — is taking shape in Ypsilanti.
WholeHeart Group is the creation of owner Patti Aaron and chef Dena Jaffee. Leasing kitchen space from Harvest Kitchen in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town, the duo began producing healthy grab-and-go snacks late last year, test marketing at various street fairs and farmers markets.
Their current line of products consists of three types of healthy “crunches” (a granola-like snack), popcorn and seasoning, and a refreshing hibiscus elixir. The products are available through the company’s website, at area farmers markets, at a cafe in Chelsea and, soon, University of Michigan students will be able to buy WholeHeart products, including the AmaizenBlue Crunch, at the school’s U-go’s on-campus convenience stores.
Setting WholeHeart Group apart from many businesses is its mission as a for-profit social enterprise.
Aaron is focused on helping others achieve economic self-sufficiency. Jaffee’s drive is to fix a broken food system. “Tastes good. Does good.” is WholeHeart’s four-word mantra. The company’s goal: making and selling healthy and delicious prepared foods while helping underserved individuals to develop marketable skills and achieve economic self-sufficiency in the healthy food business.
“I bring years of experience working with nonprofits whose mission was helping people get on their feet with marketable job skills,” said Aaron. “After studying companies like Tom’s Shoes, I became excited about the idea of creating a for-profit social enterprise whose primary mission is to serve those in need and thereby our entire community. In and around Ann Arbor, there is a very visible and active local and sustainable food community. When I was pondering what the basis for this social enterprise model would be, I was meeting great people engaged in the food reform movement. At that point, my cousin told me I should talk with Dena, who was working in Arizona at the time.”
A graduate of Cranbrook, Jaffee said she was about 10 when she began to think about the country’s broken food system. “I grew up in a medical family, and I saw the disconnect between health and food, and I was never able to reconcile that,” she said. “I remember as a child, volunteering at a hospital and having to take a plate of beige food to a patient. It literally made me sick to take that food to someone who was already sick.”
One source of inspiration was a talk by Andrew Weil, M.D. “That’s where I learned that medical students are only required to take maybe a semester of nutrition. That’s when it all started to come together for me,” said Jaffee.
“I became passionate about nutrition and trying to infiltrate the industrial food system with healthier alternatives. That’s a mission with a big scope, but I had my own family so I thought what better place to start than in the home with my own family and with individuals learning to cook for their families. Until we take that step ourselves in our own homes, it can’t really spread into the institutional levels.”
For 10 years, Jaffee worked with Dr. Weil at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. “That proved to me that health doesn’t have to be sacrificed for taste or vice versa.”
Aaron and Jaffee both cite their Jewish roots as key motivators.
“My father, who recently passed away, came from a Depression background,” said Aaron. “He would tell the story about remembering his mother sending him to the store for a pat of butter because they could not afford to buy an entire stick.
“Although he was very successful in business, he stressed the value of education and the security of economic self-sufficiency that comes with it. He also modeled a lifelong commitment to Jewish philanthropy, giving back to the community that had embraced him when he most needed it.”
“I jokingly call myself a culinary Jew,” said Jaffee. “I identify with all the foods I grew up with — chopped liver, matzah ball soup. I’m a huge believer in soups and chicken stocks, with the chicken boiling for days, the medicinal qualities. I respect the value that the Jewish traditional culture gives to food and eating together as a way of ceremony. Eating is not just about not being hungry — the kitchen is a gathering place, and that’s where real intimate conversations happen and real bonding occurs.”
Aaron cites Maimonides (a.k.a Rambam), a 12th-century Jewish scholar, who said the highest form of charity is enabling others to stand on their own two feet. Toward that end, WholeHeart will begin training interns in the next few months.
“There is no need to wait. We can begin training people now — people in need of work but requiring skill-set development,” she said. She hopes to work with Jewish Family Services of Ann Arbor and JVS of Detroit to identify intern candidates.
For more information on WholeHeart Group, or to order products, visit www.wholeheartgroup.com.