From Food Desert to Vegan Oasis

How One Entrepreneur is Bringing Healthier Options to San Jose’s Latinx Community

After food entrepreneur Rosa Guerrero Contreras made a direct connection between the food her parents ate and their deteriorating health, she resolved to create healthier options for the community where she lives in San Jose, CA. She and a partner co-founded California Vegan Food Company, a food manufacturing startup that produces high quality, wheat gluten based food products to serve her community. 

Guerrero Contreras operates her budding food business out of her kitchen, where she churns out sample packages of her plant-based product that she and her business partner have created and are marketing to 35 local restaurants and through their online store. The pair have also created “dark meat” and “white meat” versions that they largely make out of wheat gluten, nuts, and legumes and sell in bulk varieties through their California Vegan Food Company website.

Starting a movement to make healthier food choices

As a Latina, Guerrero Contreras is especially keen to serve what she views as an unmet need within the Latinx community, which she believes faces a unique set of challenges in accessing nutritious, delicious food options. She points to her parents, beset by diabetes and dementia, as examples of people who would benefit from healthier food choices. 

“I want to provide food that reduces people’s risks of enduring the same suffering my parents endured,” Guerrero Contreras said. “There’s a health movement going on where people understand that food has a direct effect on their health.”

Beyond reaching out to restaurants, Guerrero Contreras is hopeful that her meat alternatives could eventually serve areas of Northern California with a paucity of healthy food options particularly in “food deserts.” The U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses that term to designate areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. A 2016 national survey found that more than 10 percent of U.S. Latinx reported difficulty in accessing affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, a higher rate than any other racial/ethnic group. According to research by the Journal of Nutrition and the Rhode Island Medical Journal, food insecurity could increase the risk of chronic disease and obesity. By working with local restaurants, Guerrero Contreras hopes to play her own small part in diversifying the kinds of affordable and healthy proteins available in her community.

I want to provide food that reduces people’s risks of enduring the same suffering my parents endured.-Guerrero Contreras

From ‘swimming in the deep end’ to becoming a successful entrepreneur

Guerrero Contreras credits Centro Community Partners — an organization focused on small business development and growth — for getting her business idea off the ground. In 2018, she completed Centro’s Basic Entrepreneurship Program, an intensive, multi-week course that helps entrepreneurs create a basic business plan and trains them in personal and business finance. Centro also matches entrepreneurs like Guerrero Contreras with an MBA graduate who learns to become a small business advisor in the process.

“Before I started the Centro program, I felt like I was swimming in the deep end,” said Guerrero Contreras. “[Now] I have access to a network of entrepreneurs and other business professionals, strategic planning professionals, and a slew of different support networks that I didn’t know I needed before.”

Had it not been for Centro, Guerrero Contreras would have otherwise relied on Internet videos for guidance about building and growing her businesses— resources that she says are often unstructured and incomplete. “Centro’s business basics program filled my need for more information and allowed me to apply a structure to my business that I hadn’t had as I was starting to build it,” she said. 

A global mobile app to help create a business plan

In addition to the training provided through the Basic Entrepreneurship Program, Centro has helped Guerrero Contreras access $10,000 in seed funding through Capital One partner Kiva Microfunds, the non-profit online lending platform that allows people to loan money to low-income entrepreneurs. She’s also tapped into Centro’s Business Planning app, which walks entrepreneurs through the process of creating a business plan, composing a budget and income statement, assessing her creditworthiness, and connecting her to microlenders. 

Arturo Noriega, the founder and CEO executive director of Centro Community Partners, says the app has been a game changer. “We’ve made something extremely complicated into something very simple so that anybody can follow along and have fun doing it,” he said, touting the app’s success.  According to Noriega, the app has reached 40,000 downloads from nearly 150 countries, with language options in Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese. 

Capital One has partnered with Centro since 2013, providing underwriting costs and other financial resources to support the organization’s mission of empowering women and minorities to access capital and receive microloans. Centro’s program to help small businesses aligns with the core tenets of Capital One’s Future Edge community initiative, including efforts to support small businesses with new technology solutions that catalyze growth and progress. 

Capital One recognizes that when small businesses do well, so do local economies. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that small businesses are responsible for creating nearly two-thirds of net new private-sector jobs in the United States each year.

For Guerrero Contreras and her community, the impact that her product can make is personal. Having grown up in a household with limited healthy options, she is “hopeful that people will now be able to make healthy decisions that can impact their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.”