Chobani Creates a Fund to Bring Big Ideas to Life

Since its Greek yogurt first went on sale in 2007, Chobani has become a powerful force in the economy of Central New York. The company’s philanthropic arm, the Chobani Foundation, has grown along with the brand, supporting efforts to strengthen communities and improve wellness and childhood nutrition.

One of the Chobani Foundation’s newest programs is the Chobani Community Impact Fund, formed in the spring of 2018 under the Community Foundation’s umbrella. Through this fund, the Chobani Foundation will invest $100,000 per year in grants that expand economic opportunity and support entrepreneurship in Chenango, Delaware, Madison, and Otsego Counties.

Chobani has also created a second Impact Fund in partnership with the Idaho Community Foundation, to invest in communities near its plant in Twin Falls, Idaho.

The Chobani Foundation chose the Community Foundation as its partner in New York because the Community Foundation has the expertise and relationships to ensure that the new fund makes the greatest possible impact, says Jason Rahlan, director of communications and philanthropic affairs at Chobani. “They have a wealth of expertise when it comes to investments by 501(c) (3) organizations. They have a very good network of nonprofits, academic and educational leaders, municipalities and schools—all the people that could and would apply for funding to facilitate the advancement of big ideas.”

With the fund established, the Chobani Foundation invited organizations in its four target counties to propose ideas for grants. The solicitation drew 50 proposals. To decide which projects would receive investments in 2018, Chobani formed an evaluation committee, made up of employees who work at Chobani’s locations in New Berlin and Norwich, N.Y.

“We believe in community solutions to addressing community problems,” says Rahlan. “We know that those who live and work in the communities we call home are best positioned to determine which projects are the most deserving of funds.” The committee brought together employees who work in management, information technology, production, security, and other positions, he says.

Stephanie Pixley, a member of Chobani’s community loyalty team, and Clayton Bink, a security officer, were two of the committee members in 2018. Both were already enthusiastic community volunteers, and both were glad for this new opportunity to serve.

“Giving back is one of our six core principles,” says Bink, referring to Chobani’s corporate culture.

During the evaluation process, committee members looked for proposals that were food-related, entrepreneurial and innovative and that would affect a significant number of people, Bink says. “Also, the results had to be quantifiable.”

In 2018, one of the four grants from the Chobani Community Impact Fund provided $28,150 for the Agri-preneur Program at Delaware County FoodWorks+, a community food hub, business incubator, regional store and tourism center.
As Pixley read the proposals, she thought about how much impact each project would make on the community. “Would a lot of individuals benefit from this program? Would the community benefit? Would it benefit the local economy?” Programs that focused on helping local farms and children were especially attractive, she says.

After careful consideration and discussion, the committee chose four organizations to receive grants in 2018. One successful proposal came from the Sidney Central School District. The Impact Fund gave the district $21,000 to incorporate a food truck in its efforts to serve healthy, made-from-scratch meals and teach students about good nutrition.

Sidney’s student meal program has featured a salad bar, soups, and other fresh offerings for the past two years, says Kim Corcoran, food service director at Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego BOCES, which provides food service to the Sidney Schools. “We wanted to go to the next level,” she explains. “We thought the food truck would be a way to get kids excited about trying different foods.”

Corcoran hopes to recruit students from the elementary, middle and high schools to draw up a business plan for the truck and then operate the business. Students will develop menu items such as wraps, Asian bowls, and salads, prepare the food and serve it. During the warmer months, older students will be able to go outside to the food truck for school meals when they like, instead of going to the cafeteria. The truck will also dish out meals and snacks during sports events and other school activities. In addition, Corcoran says, the district might use the truck to bring its summer meal program to outlying areas, helping students in need who can’t attend the program on school grounds.

Besides expanding kids’ culinary horizons, supporters hope the food truck business will provide an experience that participating students can apply to future careers. “A lot of people are self-employed or want to be, or have really good ideas, but they have no idea where to start,” Corcoran says. The food truck offers a safe venue, with plenty of support, where students can gain job skills, or entrepreneurship skills they might someday apply to ventures of their own. “They could learn how to start and operate a business, and how to either succeed or fail—or a little bit of both.”

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