Back To The Roots And Taking The Friction Out Of Natural Foods

Watching fish swim is an inherently relaxing activity. It’s why there are cable networks that showcase nothing but footage from inside fish tanks .

Owning fish, however, is not the same as watching fish. Because although watching those fishy friends swim is relaxing, the reality of maintaining their living environment is anything but stress relieving. Fish tank owners will tell you that fish tank ownership is in fact an exercise in living with constant anxiety because re-creating the conditions of a natural environment indoors artificially is not easy work. Tanks have to be kept clean, with the right pH level at the right temperature, and any significant diversion from those norms will kill the fish. Want a tank full of brightly colored tropical fish? Great. Add salinity to the list of things that now need to be constantly monitored because most of those exciting and beautiful tropical fish are salt water only, and salt water tanks are exponentially harder to care for than their freshwater counterparts.

And we haven’t even touched on the metal distress that can come from fish ownership. A writer for Wired seems to have been brought to the brink of a full-on existential crisis by his fish tank.

“To own a fish is to experience a near-constant anxiety crisis. You will find yourself checking approximately 100 times a day to see if your fish is dead, wondering if it might be happier with a castle or perhaps a plastic pineapple, and realizing that its life in that waterlogged box is both very depressing and a very good reminder of your own mortality. You will find yourself Googling things like, ‘Fish pacing back and forth in tank’ or ‘Can fish love?’ and not feeling at all good about the answers you find.”

The team at Back to the Roots can’t help with all the levels of fish madness that go into fish tank ownership. They can’t make your fish like each other, and they have not invented technology that will make you more able to tell if your fish is truly happy or just pacing in its bowl awaiting death. What they can do, however, is offer a fish tank that requires a lot less maintenance.

The tanks run via the magic of aquaponics, a system that pairs the fish in the tank to a garden of plants that come included. The plants keep the water clear and balanced, the fish’s waste fertilizes the plants.

“It’s got to look good and be easy,” Nikhil Arora says. “That was a big goal early on: How do we use design to inspire folks to try growing their own food? It’s combining clean aesthetics with the dirt-in-your-nails homesteading feel.”

Fish tanks are part of what Back to the Roots does, but not the entirety of it. Instead the Oakland-based startup has built fish tanks into its grander goal of bringing power back to the people when it comes to eating natural, but making it easier to produce one’s own food in-house.

“We want you to be where [the food] comes from with our organic indoor gardening kits, or see where it comes from with our simple ingredient breakfast cereals. We hope to help every family experience the magic of growing their own food & make gardening part of every school curriculum!” Back the Roots says on its eCommerce site .

Being where the food comes from can be achieved with the fish tank gardening kit, which costs about $100 and comes with a 3-gallon tank, a water pump, gravel for the floor of the tank, grow stones for the planter tray and packets of wheatgrass and radish seeds. The company also throws in fish food and a bottle of beneficial bacteria to give the tiny ecosystem a kickstart.

But if one doesn’t want the responsibility of fish, there are also the garden in a can kit or the product that got it all started for Back to the Roots: the home mushroom growing kit.

“In a college class, we learned mushrooms could grow entirely on spent coffee grounds. After watching hours of how-to videos and turning our fraternity kitchen into a big science experiment, we eventually decided to give up our corporate job offers to instead become full-time mushroom farmers. What started as curiosity about urban farming has turned into a passion undo food and reconnect families back to where it comes from through fun and delicious ready-to-grow and ready-to-eat products,” Arora noted of he and partner Alejandro Velez’s early inspiration.

And for a small brand, Back to the Roots has made some fairly impressive progress. Earlier this year, the all-natural brand managed to quietly displace some cereals from titan Kellogg’s from their place on the menu of New York City schools.

The change came after Kellogg’s discontinued two Kashi cereals that had been on the school breakfast menu. Instead of replacing them with other Kellogg’s cereals, the schools switched to Back to the Roots cereals, citing a stronger nutritional profile and organic ingredients, said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of the Office of School Support Services, which oversees food operations for the city’s Department of Education. As of today, the 254,000 students eat a free breakfast in city schools. The kids now see Back to the Roots cereals in addition to more conventional offerings from General Mills, Kellogg’s and Post five days a week when they go to breakfast.

It’s a big step forward for a small firm, but Back to the Roots is just getting started.

“We believe in a future where all food comes from the kitchen, not a lab; and where R&D teams aren’t biochemists, but our grandparents.”