Close to 6 million U.S. children under 18 years old have food allergies, with peanuts as the most common allergen. And Food Allergy Research & Education reports that nut allergies alone have more than tripled among U.S. children in 10 years. Food allergies are still on the rise; and people who are at risk need to be hyperaware of ingredient labels and cross-contamination, especially since close to 200 foods are linked to allergic reactions.
Snacking should be a worry-free experience for everyone, and that's where Homefree comes in. The Windham, NH, company has a Safe Quality Food certification and makes mini-cookies that come in a variety of flavors, such as vanilla, ginger snap and chocolate chip. These treats are non-GMO verified and allergy-free, containing no dairy, eggs, wheat, nuts and gluten.
Founder and President Dr. Jill Robbins was a clinical psychologist for 13 years before she developed her wholesome brand. She focused on baking when her son was diagnosed with food allergies, believing that everyone should be able to enjoy tasty treats – with or without a special diet.
"I started this company after my son’s allergist advised me never to buy food for my son that was made in a facility with nuts or peanuts," she tells us. The doctor showed her evidence that even a trace of peanut contamination can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. After realizing this, Robbins explained how her goal was to do "everything possible to keep allergen traces out of our products."
Today, Robbins' product has received high recognition as Best Allergy-Friendly Packaged Foods by Parents Magazine, Best Gluten Free Cookies by The Good Housekeeping Research Institute and a Recommended School Snack by the Today Show.
Green changes are good changes
As a Certified B Corp, Homefree is committed to environmental and social responsibility. "We have one earth. If we are not the stewards, who will be?," says Robbins. Aside from providing consumers with clean ingredients, her company packs its cookies in cartons that are made locally – and with certified wind power.
Robbins also brings green practices home with her, and explains how even the smallest changes can make a difference. "The little things can add up. For example, at home, we try to remember to turn off the water while scrubbing a dish, until we need it again for rinsing. And of course, by making careful purchases, the positive efforts have been made for us by the suppliers! So we pay attention to whether an appliance is Energy Star and a vehicle is high fuel efficiency."
We asked Jill about Homefree's allergy-friendly commitment, the goal behind her "better for you cookies" and what inspires her leadership.
How does your company stay allergy-friendly in the production process?
"Being allergen free starts with the ingredients themselves. I spent six months just finding ingredient companies to source from, so that there would not have been risk of cross-contact from food allergens. And as an added precaution, we allergen-test the ingredients for peanut, almond, egg and milk traces. And we test random finished product for those and for gluten. Our staff brings lunches that don’t contain the top allergens, and even wear our uniforms (washed in-house) and our shoes, to be sure they don’t track in allergen traces."
Why should consumers opt for allergy-friendly snacks like Homefree cookies?
"If a consumer doesn’t need allergen free, and is shopping for himself or herself, there is no need to opt for foods that are allergen free. But I don’t think of Homefree cookies as 'allergy-friendly cookies' or as 'gluten free cookies,' even though of course they are. Rather, I think of them as good cookies, and as 'better for you cookies.' Many people buy Homefree cookies simply because they taste great and are wholesome. In fact, Homefree cookies have won awards as regular good cookies, having nothing to do with being special diet.
The biggest reason to purchase allergy-friendly snacks (assuming you do not yourself have an allergy or sensitivity) is if you are feeding other people, whereby someone in the group has – or might have – a special diet. One of my primary goals with Homefree cookies was for them to taste so good that everyone would be delighted to eat them together. Now, when serving Homefree cookies to a group of people, you can feel great as a host or hostess, knowing that you are including the people with food allergies and most other special dietary needs."
How has being a woman in business influenced your vision and leadership style?
"I'm not sure how much is gender-related, but certainly much is related to being a parent. I left my profession as a clinical psychologist in order to help meet the needs of my food-allergic son, and of the many other people with special dietary needs. I wanted to make it easier for everyone to be able to join in socially together when treats are served, for everyone to feel like they matter as an important part of the family or group.
With that origin, it will be no surprise that the company itself has always been very family-oriented too. We offer a great deal of flexibility to our staff to be able to have a good work/home balance. This starts at the job interviews, where rather than specify what hours are required, we ask what would be their ideal hours. Then we do our best to balance that with the company’s needs. We also designed the facility to have an outer room specifically for family needs. This can be for nursing, or for family members waiting for a staff member. Problem solving and planning are done as a team, with everyone’s opinion valued."