Launching her career at food conglomerate Cargill, Inc. Armetha A. Pihlstrom got a firsthand look into the agricultural landscape and food industry, and the many ways it intricately shapes and weaves itself into the fabric of our lives. For Armetha, food is not simply the meal that you see on the table – it’s everything that came before and, in many cases, what comes after. It represents access, health, social injustice, sustainability, food insecurity, and the variety of different cultural and personal connections we all have to it as humans.
“Working with Cargill helped me understand ‘full circle’–where we are going with food, but also where we have been with food,” shares Armetha. “And then, from a present perspective, how can we adapt, improvise, and adjust to make better changes to food? We owe it to ourselves and to the future generations to make those changes.”
In addition to being a member of PBFA and serving on the Board, Armetha is the senior director of U.S. & Canada Foodservice Sales at Future Farm and is the owner and founder of her own company, the Pihlstrom Consulting Group, LLC. From this experience seeing the big picture of how the food industry works–understanding nuances of standards, regulations, and requirements world governments have in place for food–Armetha’s farm-to-table view came into focus. And then, it really hit close to home: About two years ago, she was shocked by the news that she would have to undergo an emergency hysterectomy surgery for a condition that primarily had roots in her diet, in addition to hereditary factors. It became clear to her then that there is so much that consumers aren’t told about what goes into food and the long-term impact it may have on our health.
“Good is not good enough anymore, we have to do better. And coming into PBFA as a board member helps with that,” says Armetha. “Bringing these changes to the world, but also to our members, and also for me personally, to be part of that change. I want to leave a better world for my grandchildren that are not even born yet.”
Changing the Environment to Nourish Neighborhoods and Communities
Armetha grew up in the inner city of Chicago, in an environment plagued by gang violence, drug use, prostitution, and poverty. She dropped out of high school at the age of 16 and by that time, was already working two jobs to make ends meet and survive. After saving for years, she finally bought a Greyhound bus ticket, packed her belongings into a garbage bag, and left in search of a better life in Minnesota. There, Armetha got her GED, graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business Management, and continued on to obtain her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota.
“I personally know that I can’t change the neighborhood,” she says. “But I can change my own mindset and surroundings.”
In Armetha’s view, change comes from the inside and works its way out–an approach that frames her perspective of the broader food system and her role in making healthy, affordable foods accessible for everyone. Changing the food industry, and influencing the plant-based food sector to be the driver of this change, is a lifelong mission for Armetha, underscored by the urgent need for drastic environmental shifts. But she knows that actively contributing to these shifts is much easier for some than others.
“When you live in a household where no one went to college, then college is not a discussion or a dream that you believe can be obtained. When you don’t have the resources or access to options. When you live in a household where you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, there’s no space to think about how that food was sourced or grown or what long-term health benefits there may be from eating this meal that was prepared for you. You’re starving on a daily basis. That’s not a place where you can say or think about eating plant-based products, or could afford them.”
Overcoming Barriers to Thriving
While all communities would benefit from increased access to healthy plant-based foods, BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Multiracial, People of Color) communities are disproportionately impacted by our current animal product-dominated food system, due to higher rates of being lactase non-persistent or lactose-intolerant–or not being able to digest lactose–and higher rates of chronic disease. The interest in plant-based foods exists across demographics, and studies show BIMPOC Americans are leading the demand for more healthy, sustainable options. The statistics on access, however, illustrate that there are significant barriers that need to be addressed. “When you are running on what we call the hamster wheel of life, the last thing you’re thinking about is a plant-based burger or plant-based milk because it’s too expensive,” says Armetha.
Understanding the complexities of access and price, Armetha uses her roles at Future Farm and the PBFA Board to shift the conversation and center the real issues. “At Future Farm, I was so proud that our leadership team and I were able to set our price to make a difference and agree that we are committed to democratizing plant-based and opening the doors of accessibility so everyone can have our product. Why? Because why not? Why should people who can barely afford to eat, not be able to eat healthy plant-based foods?”
This year, PBFA released its first-ever strategic plan and publicly asserted that the work we do on behalf of the plant-based foods industry will be led through the filter of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. This commitment means changing the narratives around access, empowering members and industry stakeholders to acknowledge the areas in which improvement is needed, and coming together to build a plant-based food industry where values and business interests harmonize to create a plant-based food system that respects the dignity and health of all living beings and the planet. This call to influence the broader industry to uplift and empower people from every single background and demographic is a driving motivator for Armetha.
“We’re not just about diversity and inclusion and equity. We don’t just say it. We believe it.” She continues, “We have incorporated it in our strategic intent as well as in our hiring practices. These are things for the PBFA Board and at Future Farm that are personal to us and our membership. This is who we are and that’s really important.”
Envisioning a Future for People Where Access, Ideas, and Equity Are the Norm
Armetha knows that the everyday responsibilities she navigates and the accomplishments she’s accrued have a ripple effect on the broader world, and being a part of a movement to shape the food system is just one part of her vision for a future where equality and equity are the gold standard. Spanning her career and personal life, the theme of interconnectedness and the importance of centering our shared humanity, despite our varied experiences, runs through. When Armetha speaks about her husband, Thomas, and son, Isaiah, the pride and emotion are palpable in her voice. It is clear that her desire for a world that is as grounded in compassion, love, and understanding as her diverse family is what she hopes to build for all people.
“When I wake up every day and I go to my medicine cabinet, I see sunscreen and Afro Sheen. Because we’re an interracial household. And for me, the future of food is very similar to the future of our world,” Armetha shares. “I want to be able to see ‘plant-based’ hit every demographic, every ethnic background, every religion, every socio-economic scale, and I want everybody–even down to our pets–to have access to plant-based foods. That’s how it should be. It’s not just for a certain class of people. It’s for everybody.”