Turning the calendar to 2021 represents an important sign of change right now, for obvious reasons. For me, it also signals a major milestone in my career: As of January 1, I am no longer with the Plant Based Foods Association, the organization that I founded in 2015. After five years as the organization’s leader, I would like to reflect on what we accomplished.
Let’s start with PBFA’s origin story. In late 2014, I was inspired to start a trade association while speaking with my long-time friend and colleague, Miyoko Schinner. (We were enjoying an event at Millennium, a premier vegan restaurant in San Francisco.) Miyoko told me how her new company was unable to use the word “cheese” on their cashew-based cheeses. This was due to an outdated law in California that benefited the dairy industry. Having spent many years researching and writing about how the meat and dairy industries organize their political power through collective action, I set about to organize the emerging plant-based foods industry so that it too could have a voice in Washington DC and in state capitols.
Determined to make my vision a reality, I spent many months talking to company leaders to convince them to go on the journey with me. This was no easy task, as I was an industry outsider. Trade associations are normally formed by the companies themselves coming together to hire a firm to represent them. I was going about it the other way around, all on my own dime, traveling to trade shows, taking meetings with people I didn’t even know. Moreover, other than understanding the importance of collective action in the political arena, I had very little knowledge of the nuts and bolts of forming a trade group. There was no handbook or YouTube video to guide me, so I learned on the fly. At times, the hurdles seemed insurmountable.
So I was thrilled when all the hard work and persistence paid off when the right company leaders decided to take a chance on me, and to share in my vision. In 2016, the Plant Based Foods Association officially launched with 23 members. The start-up budget was very shoe-string, and I wore all the necessary hats for a pretty long time. But I knew in the long-run it would be worth it. Given all the early challenges, I am very proud of PBFA’s accomplishments over the past five years. Below are some highlights.
- Grew to 180 company members, including the leading brands in each of the plant-based foods categories to truly represent the entire industry; expanded membership categories to 200+ affiliate and investor members
- Grew from start-up phase to 7 full-time professional staff plus 6 part-time consultants including seasoned federal and state lobbyists
- Grew from start-up funds of $60,000 to $2.5 million budget in 2020
- Launched a 501c (3) affiliate organization to attract donations to supplement member dues, allowing PBFA programs to expand into retail and food service
- Secured close to $3 million in donations, including $875,000 to support our state-level policy work, and exceeded fundraising goals each year.
- Successfully defended against numerous meat and dairy lobby bills at the federal and state levels (over half the states introduced bills in 2019 alone)
- Engaged FDA officials in constructive dialogue regarding labeling issues, fending off any regulatory action by the agency
- Hosted numerous lobby days in Washington, introducing members to their congressional representatives and regulatory officials at FDA and USDA
- Hosted a hugely successful virtual briefing for California members of the legislature, showcasing 8 California-based member companies
- Successfully litigated to stop a bad meat labeling law in Mississippi, and filed a similar lawsuit in Oklahoma to challenge a meat labeling law there
- Secured the governor’s veto of a bad milk labeling bill in Virginia
- Released voluntary labeling standards for various plant-based food categories
- Conceived of and advanced a project to position the plant-based foods industry as an opportunity for American farmers to ensure more domestically-grown ingredients for members.
- Created a robust retail partnership program with major retailers that includes shopper marketing campaigns, annual market data reports, robust resources for members, and more
- Amplified first of its kind shopper marketing campaign at Lucky stores (in Northern California) through media coverage and social media influencer
- Conceived of first of its kind research (in partnership with leading retailer Kroger) that showed placing plant-based meats in the meat department sold better, resulting in widespread media coverage
- Conceived of “The Power Plant,” first of its kind grab-and-go concept for food service and retail, which launched at the National Restaurant Association trade show
- Collaborated with NSF International on first of its kind “Certified Plant Based” stamp, resulting in a robust definition of “plant-based” to ensure integrity of the phrase; dozens of brands are now certified; also adopted by Plant-Based Foods of Canada.
Public Relations and Media Coverage
- New York Times coverage of PBFA’s launch thanks to my contact there; became the go-to resource among leading business media outlets
- Thought leadership on countless panels at trade shows and other events
- Partnered with Plant Based World for first-ever plant-based foods focused trade show
- Conceived of a member-focused event called “Scaling Up” to work collectively on addressing common challenges faced by plant-based food companies.
I am grateful for all the talented and dedicated staff, consultants, members, donors, and partners who contributed to all of this and much more. I am honored to have represented this mission-based industry at a time when it saw unprecedented growth, and proud to have contributed to its success.
Many colleagues have asked me what’s next. It’s too soon to say; for now I am taking some time off to reflect and refresh. The passion that drove me to start PBFA is very much still with me. The plant-based foods movement is more than just one organization. It also represents many different facets of the broader food movement, of which I have been a part for some 25 years now. We still have a lot of work to do and I look forward to my next chapter.
Meanwhile, I will be building out this page: https://michelersimon.com/