Stronger Together: One Meal at a Time
Sprout owner Ryan Groll and chef Wes Sampson continue to provide food resources to those in need.
Ryan and Emily Groll’s Farm to Friends initiative is connecting the dots in our hungry community
By Amelia Blades Steward / Photos by Stephen Walker
Five years ago, Ryan and Emily Groll of Easton were jobless and on Food Stamps. The couple started doing what they knew — making healthy food. While unemployed, the two used their degrees and backgrounds in kinesiology, cooking, and nutrition, to put together healthy meals for friends. Friends would buy groceries and they would do the cooking. Word spread and the couple did a feasibility study which showed that people would buy good food when it was convenient. In January 2016, they sold their car and used the money from it as capital to build a food truck with a commercial kitchen and their business, Sprout (a nickname of their first daughter) was off and running. The business offered locally-sourced, ready-to-eat meals delivered directly to homes.
Ryan comments, “The business was an extension of our lifestyle. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) had been a part of our entire lives. We wanted to use that model of eating in the seasons and buying local as the foundation for the new business.”
“Our philosophy of life was to determine how we wanted to live and then build our business around that.”
As their business started to grow, the couple made giving back a part of their business plan. They knew what it felt like to be jobless and wanting to eat healthy food. Sprout gave food to the Talbot Hunger Coalition, Talbot Interfaith Shelter, the Neighborhood Service Center, and helped the elderly in the community, as well as provided demonstrations at the elementary schools to teach kids that healthy food could taste good. Ryan reflects, “We wanted to give back to the community who gave to us during those hard times.”
Ryan and Emily Groll, owners of Sprout, were once jobless and on Food Stamps. They started doing what they knew — making healthy food which grew into a successful business with storefront locations in Easton and St. Michaels. Photo By Arden Haley.
In two years, the business grew from one additional employee to eight employees. The company now needed a public space with a larger production kitchen, so they opened a storefront on Aurora Street in Easton to allow them to rotate their products. Soon, Sprout had 17 employees. Local purveyors, they were working with growing, too. That is, until COVID-19 hit in March of this year.
Ryan recalls the impact on his growing business, “We had just opened our store in St. Michaels before Christmas and had to close it three months later on March 15. We also had to reduce our staff in Easton.”
Sprout, like many other businesses in the area, had to pivot and relaunch online services just to keep their head above water. Ryan also expanded his delivery area to Severna Park and Salisbury. Despite the struggles, they didn’t let their heart for the community diminish. In April, they launched “Feed the Front Lines,” an online giving program where people in the community could sponsor meals for workers on the front lines fighting the virus. Whatever the community donated, Sprout matched the donation by 25 percent. Front line workers included those working in local hospitals and medical centers, police officers, paramedics, For All Seasons, the YMCA, Talbot Interfaith Shelter, and Talbot Hospice.
At the end of May, realizing the impact of the pandemic on friends in the hospitality industry who had lost their jobs and local farmers who had an excess of product, Chef Wes Sampson at Sprout came up with another program, “Farm to Friends.” This program connected the excess product from local farmers to food-insecure families. Community members could do the same thing they did with Feed the Front and go online and donate. Stickers are also sold for $5 each and the purchase of two stickers covers the cost of a CSA bag that can feed a family of four. The bag included eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, yogurt, milk and butter.
“We wanted to get healthy food to those impacted by the restaurant closings and the farmers had product to sell that they couldn’t sell to restaurants,” comments Sampson.
“My passion is to educate communities on the fresh products available locally, right in our backyards, and increase access to those products.”
Sprout purchased products from local farmers including Abundant Grace Farms, Nice Farms Creamery, Blades Orchard, Chapel Country Creamery, and Baywater Farms, to name a few. Donations to Farm to Friends enabled Ryan to buy products from the farmers at retail value. Ryan comments, “Farmers were so grateful they could sell their products and help those in need.”
Top Left: Ryan Groll of Sprout with Tim Fields, General Manager/Operator of Baywater Farms in Salisbury, MD. The Farm to Friends program connects farmers who have product to sell with families in need. Bottom Left: Sprout Chef Wes Sampson with Jarred and Trisha Boyce, owners of Chapel Country Creamery, and their son. Top Right: Produce that is typically donated from local farmers for Sprout’s Farm to Friends program. Bottom Right: One of the families affiliated with Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center receive a Farm to Friends CSA bag. Courtesy Photos.
For farmers Brian and Jessica Perez of Abundance Grace Farms in Denton, the Farm to Friends program was a natural fit. The couple, who grow organic produce, herbs, and pasteurized-raised meats for wholesale and retail, were already donating excess produce to nonprofits like His Hope Haven in Denton.
“We are a Christian family and believe in taking care of our community. We had a relationship already with Sprout and thought it was a great idea. We were amazed at how quickly they were able to get so many farmers on board so quickly. It allowed us to build our retail business, as our wholesale business slowed down.”
Farmers Jarred and Trisha Boyce of Chapel Country Creamery in Easton were in a more dire situation with an excess of product when COVID-19 hit. The business focused its cheese sales on restaurants, event venues, and hotels, so when they all closed in March, the couple had nowhere to sell their product. Eventually, the business got into more grocery outlets which were having trouble getting products themselves.
Trisha recalls, “All of our inventory for spring was made. Because our cheese has no preservatives, it couldn’t sit around and we didn’t want to throw any away with so many people in need. We helped to pack the CSA bags and liked seeing all of the farmers’ products that went into each bag.”
Ryan Groll rolls out a cart of freshly baked bread at his location in Easton.
She hopes local stores continue to use local farmers for products after the pandemic is over, stating, “This experience showed that they can rely on us for their food needs.”
The product was then packaged in CSA bags by volunteers and donated to families in need. Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center helped identify families who could not receive support from other means to receive the bags. Donations were also made to Talbot Family Meals and several food pantries. Between the two programs, Feed the Front and Farm to Families, Ryan figures that all together, with their donation of 25 percent, Sprout raised over $30,000 in donations in eight weeks and provided nearly 17,000 meals. Although the distribution of Farm to Friends has slowed down some from its weekly distributions, Sprout will continue the program as long as it is needed and donations continue to be accepted.
“These programs got the community involved in helping others while keeping our staff employed. It was a way to keep our head above water and our doors open and it boosted the morale of our team. The farmers were so grateful that they could sell their product to help those in need,” Ryan adds.
“This project was really just about connecting the dots — connecting those growing the food to those needing food while empowering donors,” he reflects.
“The best part is we knew who we were helping and heard from many of them. It was just the right thing to do.”
To donate to Farm to Friends, visit eatsprout.com or call Ryan Groll at 443-223-0642.