Neil Zevnik, Contributor : Private Chef, Food Writer, Animal Lover, Organic Gardener, Collector
Imagine you’ve just arrived in India for the first time, and you’re surrounded by a colorful swirling maelstrom of people and vegetation and erratic vehicles of all sorts. There on the ground in front of you lies a three-foot-long, 80-pound prickly green monstrosity that resembles an H.P. Lovecraft version of a porcupine. Upon further cautious inspection, it turns out to be a jackfruit – the largest tree fruit in the world.
Related to figs and mulberries, but ridiculously oversized compared to those modest fruits, jackfruits can reach four feet in length and 100 pounds in weight, and are borne on sturdy trees that can reach 50 feet in height. It grows with minimal husbandry in tropical climates, and produces substantial crops for many years. Harvested young, the fruits provide a savory substitute for meat, offering generous helpings of protein, fiber, potassium, and Vitamin B. Harvested when ripe, it becomes a sweet treat, with a taste and aroma reminiscent of banana, mango, and pineapple combined.
Thought to have originated in India, the jackfruit has been cultivated for over 6000 years. But in the last half-century or so it has fallen into disfavor, being viewed as a “poor man’s fruit”. Fortunately that perception is changing, and jackfruit is being hailed as a possible savior for the future food supply in the face of global warming’s effects on traditional food sources such as wheat and rice and corn, not to mention the deleterious results of meat production worldwide.
That individual arriving in India for the first time? That was Harvard Medical School student Annie Ryu, who traveled there on summer break with her brother to implement a maternal and child healthcare program they had created. Developing a sustainable, organic, environmentally-forward food chain company was not anywhere on her radar.
But after attending a jackfruit festival, and experiencing a jackfruit burger in the home where she was staying, she became intrigued by this versatile fruit and began to investigate. She discovered that it was ubiquitous but wholly underutilized, that a single tree can yield up to three tons of fruit, and that 70% of all jackfruit in India was going to waste for lack of supply chains.
So she left her Fulbright Scholarship and Harvard behind, and embarked upon an entirely new adventure. She was determined to “create a pathway to turn jackfruit into income for farming families, while positively impacting the environment and human health”.
For Annie, the first taste of jackfruit was only the beginning of a series of revelations and learning experiences. It was disturbing to her that something so delicious and so easy to grow, with such explosive nutritional and environmental potential, was literally falling by the wayside. Someone needed to step up.
So she did. In pursuing this goal, she was focused on what was to her the most important aspect: “its transformative potential – for farming families (livelihoods), for consumers (delicious & satisfying nutrition), and for our planet (sustainability)”. Thus was borne The Jackfruit Company.
The fact that jackfruit could be a seriously viable meat substitute was primary to her vision. Not only could it provide affordable sustenance to populations in developing countries, but it could help offset the contributions to global warming made by the meat industry worldwide.
And though she occasionally casts a longing glance back at her medical aspirations, and the difficulties encountered along the way, she is firm in her commitment. Annie sums it up this way: “This might sound trite, but the whole process of founding and building this company has confirmed my belief that what it takes to change the world is a whole lot of focus, work, and grit. It’s not magic, it doesn’t take special powers – it takes what you can harness within yourself.”
A powerful lesson, for sure.