Table Talk: John Rivers’ 4Roots
Entrepreneur and philanthropist John Rivers discusses 4Roots, his latest passion project.
Food is a universal language, one that John Rivers speaks well. While his name is most often associated with the 4Rivers Smokehouse chain, Rivers’ latest endeavor addresses food insecurity in Orange County.
4Roots is a nonprofit partnership between many food-related collaborators who have joined together with a vision to create a more sustainable and equitable local food system. While many expressions of 4Roots are already in motion, phase one of the 18-acre farm campus is set to open in 2022 in Orlando’s emergent Packing District, located just to the west of College Park. At the farm campus, education intersects with food, health and agriculture through the working farm, greenhouse, discovery center, farm-to-table restaurant, farmers market and classrooms.
John Rivers’ contagious passion for service, education and equality radiated as he shared what 4Roots means to him and how he already sees positive effects in our community.
What does 4R stand for?
It’s quite simple: We are a family of four and our last name is Rivers, and there is a reference in Genesis to four rivers in the Garden of Eden. The name “4Roots” fit nicely with our new farm-based branch of the 4R Foundation.
What inspired you to begin 4Roots?
One in six students in Orlando faces food insecurity, yet nearly one billion pounds of Florida produce are wasted annually. My wife and I decided to concentrate on trying to rectify this dissonance within our community and local food system beyond just creating access to food; we realized that we need strong collaborations between farmers, teachers, food retailers, restaurateurs, healthcare providers and business owners. With 4Roots, we are creating a round table for each of these community stakeholders.
The Orlando food scene is a rich, evolving place, one you have been an integral part of for many years. How do you feel that this community helped foster your idea for 4Roots?
It takes a community like Orlando that supports and embraces health and food consciousness to make our idea possible. Also, since Orlando is an important tourist destination, we will create experiences for out-of-town guests to help spread the reach of our mission.
How do you see your role in the larger community of Central Florida?
I strive to be an inspirer and an encourager. When I started an initiative at my restaurants to buy local produce, large businesses like AdventHealth, Orlando Health and OCPS [Orange County Public Schools] joined our effort. Now, we’ve aggregated $15 million worth of annual produce purchases to help our local farmers and provide our organizations with fresher, better food.
If you had to describe the mission statement of 4Roots in your own words, how would you phrase it?
Even if we teach or expose one student to something about the food they are eating, that’s a win. Our mission [is] that rudimentary.
Why do you believe it is so important to start by educating children about food insecurity?
You never know what one child is going to be inspired to do, what doors we are opening for them just by increasing awareness. Maybe it leads to a job in the agricultural industry or as a chef, or it helps them make healthier food choices at home. Everything starts by planting a seed.
How has the scope of the 4Roots mission expanded in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Disruption always creates opportunities. While the pandemic postponed our plans, it propelled us to action in ways that we couldn’t have imagined. We started our Feed the Need program, serving over 1.8 million meals made with 700,000 pounds of “rescued” local produce to students unable to attend school and receive school lunches. We’re now partnering with 900 different restaurants to serve students and their families in 46 statewide locations.
How important is it that everyday consumers purchase local food?
It’s incredibly important. Although Florida has a surplus of products like potatoes, corn and lettuce, we’re still importing them because supply follows demand. Consumers have the ability to make an impact on the local food system by simply buying produce from Florida.
What aspect of 4Roots are you most excited about currently, and why?
The Culinary Health Institute, which will be the first of its kind in the country. We want to educate people on the intersection between food and their health, provide experiences related to food as medicine, use diets as prescribed treatments for disease and encourage holistic approaches to wellbeing through food.
Where do you see 4Roots in five years?
By next fall, our goal is to have students from middle school through college on campus, actively learning about food, agriculture, ag-technology and nutrition. After that, I envision families, conferences, a Michelin-starred restaurant, interns, guest speakers, groundbreaking advancements in seed development, weddings and farmers learning about regenerative sustainable farming, all hosted on our campus.
What are some things that people reading this article can do to get involved with 4Roots and support the organization’s mission?
There are five things: buy local, join a Community Supported Agriculture program, start composting, volunteer at the farm campus and donate to become a 4Roots member.
The 4Roots Foundation offers various expressions, listed below, to meet its mission. To learn more, visit 4RootsFarm.org.
4 Roots Café/Food Heroes Exhibit
4Roots currently partners with the Orlando Science Center through the plant-forward 4Roots Café and the new interactive Food Heroes Exhibit. Both experiences blend food and health to educate children about the food system and highlight “food heroes” in the community.
The current physical hub of 4Roots, the Co-Op creates a connection between farmers, retailers and consumers by sourcing and selling local produce and alleviating food waste.
Housed at the Co-Op, The Farmacy sells locally grown, seasonal, non-GMO produce and a variety of responsibly produced meats, eggs, dairy products and pantry items through their farm stand at the Winter Garden Farmers Market and subscription boxes available for pick-up or delivery.
O-Town Compost is a subscription composting company that composts food scraps from your home for local community gardens. The company has turned over 190,000 pounds of food waste into compost and currently operates out of the Co-Op.
4Roots Farm-to-School Program
4Roots works with local K-12 schools by providing on-campus, experiential-learning opportunities about growing and harvesting fresh food. A large portion of the food from these greenhouses, hydroponic systems and gardens is used in the school cafeterias.