Cindy Frei and her son Caleb are the founders of Caleb’s Cooking Company, a food startup dedicated to helping children with pediatric autoimmune illnesses and digestive related problems lead happier, healthier lives. The company sells foods that kids love to eat like pizza, chicken nuggets, enchiladas and more, but that are gluten, sugar, grain, dairy and preservative free.
Thyme Fries: What inspired you to launch your Caleb’s Cooking Company?
Cindy Frei: Caleb was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease almost 4 years ago. I put him on an elimination diet called The Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which cuts out all grains, gluten, refined sugar, most dairy and preservatives from his diet to reduce inflammation and help with digestion. Needless to say, it was challenging for all of us, Caleb especially. This wasn’t just a diet, but a complete change of lifestyle. Fortunately, Caleb was on board and ready for the journey. Or at least he thought he was.
After just 4 weeks, all of Caleb’s blood markers measuring inflammation had dropped to almost normal. Now, about a year and a half into the diet, Caleb continues to remain in remission, but socially and psychologically, the diet is taking its toll. Navigating a junk food filled world with weekly bake sales, birthday parties and sleepovers is socially and psychologically challenging.
Caleb often felt like an outcast. He has to carry his food with him wherever he goes and just having his friends over for a sleepover can became awkward and uncomfortable.
I knew instinctually that I had to do something to help. After all, if Caleb was suffering like this, than that meant there were many other children with autoimmune illnesses on special diets who felt the same way.
Then, it came to me.
I would create a company to make healthy food that any child on a special diet could eat. It would all be grain, gluten, sugar, dairy and preservative free and would look, taste and be packaged just like “regular kids fast food”. I would call it Caleb’s Cooking Company. Here is a blog which tells my personal story from when Caleb was diagnosed to the creation of Caleb’s Cooking Company.
Thyme Fries: Through Caleb’s experience, what have you learned about autoimmune diseases and the connection between what we eat and our immune system?
Cindy Frei: Along this journey, I have learned a great deal about autoimmune illnesses. First and foremost, I had no idea how many children had autoimmune illnesses in this country and how fast the rate at which our children were getting sick was growing. Here are a couple of facts:
- The prevalence of autoimmune disease is unfortunately on the rise. Approximately 50 million Americans, 20% of the population or one in five people, suffer from autoimmune diseases. (Source: American Autoimmune Related Disease Association)
- In comparison, Cancer affects 9 million and Heart Disease, 22 million Americans. (Source: American Autoimmune Related Disease Association)
- In children, autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 causes of death for kids aged 1-14 and one of the top 8 causes of death in children and young adults aged 15-24. (Source: American Autoimmune Related Disease Association – see PDF entitled Children & Autoimmune Disease)
- Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis. These diseases range from Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis to Juvenile Diabetes and Rheumatoid Arthritis. (Source: American Autoimmune Related Disease Association)
An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, mistaking them for foreign invaders. This can lead to destruction of body tissue and abnormal organ growth and function.
There is a strong connection between the food we eat and autoimmune illnesses. More and more studies are suggested that processed foods and food additives are damaging the mucus of the inner lining of the intestines, which allow bacteria and other foreign bodies to damage it. This increases the risk for autoimmune diseases. Diets high in fat and cholesterol, sugar, and excess salt intake, as well as frequent consumption of processed and ‘fast foods’ weaken the intestine’s resistance to bacteria, toxins and “other hostile nutritional and not nutritional elements,” which in turn increases the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease.
Thyme Fries: How will Caleb’s Cooking Company address the problem? Why is it important to address not just the nutritional aspects of these meals but also the social? How do you hope to empower kids to think differently about what they eat and the food system as a whole?
Cindy Frei: We are helping to address this problem by creating food for kids that is whole, organic, free of GMO’s and gluten, grain, sugar, dairy & preservative free. Our food is also marketed and packaged as “fast food”, meaning its fully prepared, packaged and marketed for kids. We are selling the food that kids love to eat (pizza, chicken nuggets, enchiladas etc), while making it all good for them.
As a teenager, Caleb is embarrassed to be different from the rest of the kids, to have Crohn’s, be on a special diet, carrying his food etc.
At 14 years old, Caleb’s social life has become the center of his being, and the last thing he wants is to stand out or be different from his friends. Simple events that most would take for granted, like lunch at school, having a sleep over or eating dinner out, are far from simple when you have Crohn’s and are on a diet like the SCD. The simple act of being able to share a meal (a pizza or chicken nuggets) with his buddies is a big deal. Feeling good physically isn’t enough when you have to stay on a diet. It’s critically important to keep his mind in the game, to keep his spirits up and keep him excited and engaged. It’s amazing how food can do that.
With kids getting sicker, they are starting to awaken to the role that food plays in their health and life. More and more kids know someone who has an autoimmune or inflammatory disease – whether its Crohns, Celiac, Diabetes, a sever allergy and its becoming a wake up call to all kids that what we eat drives our health and well being.
Thyme Fries: What role does Caleb play in the company?
Cindy Frei: Caleb plays multiple roles in the company. He runs Caleb’s Club, an exclusive club on the website just for kids with IBD and other autoimmune illnesses. It’s a place where kids can hang out, share funny images, music, videos and their experiences with IBD. This is Caleb’s “baby” and besides nudging him every now and again to stay involved (and monitoring content), I leave it to him to manage. I think it’s helpful for Caleb (as well as the rest of the kids) to not only see how many other children have IBD (and are on the SCD diet), but also to share similar experiences and feelings about it. I believe passionately that no child should ever feel alone or like an outcast because of their disease or diet.
Caleb also blogs and creates videos sharing his experience having Crohn’s and being on a special diet. This helps provide a kids perspective for other parents, but more importantly for the kids out there who might feel like they are the only ones struggling.
Thyme Fries: You are running a Kickstarter campaign (which closes on May 12th) to fund the launch of your first line of meals. What types of meals will be featured initially and who is the chef creating them? How else do you plan to use the money raised?
Cindy Frei: We are launching the company with three products:
- Cheese Pizza (non dairy – sausage & tomato pie)
- Chicken Nuggets
- Pork & Bean Enchilada
We have partnered with Travis Bettinson of Junip Foods, a well-established SCD/Paleo Chef, who specializes in cooking for children with dietary needs. Travis has created our first recipes for Caleb’s Cooking Company.
Travis prepared SCD meals for Camp Oasis, (a camp for kids with Crohn’s & Colitis), as well as the recent study completed on the SCD Diet for Seattle Children’s Hospital. They are kid tested and kid approved.
We are seeking monies to accomplish the immediate following tasks, which permit us to begin food production:
- Join DC Union Kitchen as a full member
- Hire a local chef
- Cover ingredient/packaging costs
- Cover shipping costs
- Paid advertising & marketing costs
We already have 1000 preorders – people who have expressed interest in buying in of our products (at a discounted rate), so we are very excited to get into the kitchen and start cooking and delivering these orders.
Thyme Fries: Where do you plan to sell Caleb’s meals (and at what price point)? In addition to retail, where else do you envision customers finding Caleb’s Cooking Company?
Cindy Frei: We plan to sell our food initially online and over time, in stores like Whole Foods, Moms, Roots and more. There are other markets we intend to pursue like Camps (specifically Camp Oasis), schools and GI Units of Children’s Hospitals.
Thyme Fries: How has DC Union Kitchen been a resource? What other resources or advice have been most helpful as you launch a healthy food startup?
Cindy Frei: We are a member of DC Union Kitchen, a food incubator in Washington DC, where we will manage all of our food production, packaging and logistics. DC Union provides:
- Best-in-class professionally managed commercial kitchen
- A distribution arm with relationships with 200 retailers in the region and 20 Whole Food Market locations
- Entrepreneurship training & counseling
- Marketing support and more
In addition to DC Union Kitchen, which has helped provide guidance on food licensing and vendor sourcing, I rely on all of the parents online to advise me on what they need and want for their children. I spend a great deal of time on Facebook support groups, so I have a good grasp of the needs and wants of parents in the autoimmune illness community.
Thyme Fries: What advice do you have for other parents as they grapple with a food system that often exacerbates rather than ameliorates the effects of these illnesses?
Cindy Frei: I recently wrote a blog entitled, “Do You Know What’s In Your Kids’ Food?”. In it, I discuss the 7 deadliest toxins many parents are feeding their kids and not realizing it. I also tell people what they can do about it and how they can help, or at least start the process of reducing toxins and cleaning up their children’s diets.