Bedecked in rainbow clothing, Hether Frayer flits about Southwest Michigan proclaiming, “Fresh food is fun!”
She’s the Fresh Food Fairy, and she rides her stationary bicycle, equipped with a food blender, to make Bike Blender Smoothies at locations such as farmers’ markets and health and wellness fairs. She flutters into classrooms to demonstrate to youngsters that it’s OK to play with food — as a precursor to eating it, of course — and she and her employees make KALEamazoo Chips from locally grown kale.
After earning a teaching degree from Western Michigan University in 2000, Frayer returned home to Farmington Hills and taught for a year at a charter school in Detroit. Although she liked the school’s novel ideology, she soon realized, “I was not cut out to be a classroom teacher. I wanted everything to be really fun, but there were too many governmental constraints.”
A year later, she married Matt Frayer, whom she had met at WMU, and the couple returned to Kalamazoo, where he had gained employment as a quality-control scientist at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Frayer tried her hand at substitute teaching before the birth of their son, Jonna, in 2002 and daughter, Haniya, in 2004 set the stage for her in fairydom.
Frayer became a facilitator, teacher, pod leader and cook with Girls in the Wild, a local rite-of-passage program for teenage girls that includes wilderness backpacking and discussions about their development and bodies. She also ran an after-school creative problem-solving game for youngsters called Brain Hurricane at various schools in Kalamazoo, and worked as a teacher’s aide at Northglade Montessori School, where Jonna and Haniya were students.
When assigned to work in the lunchroom at Northglade, Frayer says, she became dismayed with the volume of fresh fruits and vegetables the youngsters threw away each day. “That drove me crazy,” she says. Curious, she asked the kids why they were tossing healthy food.
She learned that the youths were highly influenced by “the billions of dollars spent advertising junk food that has no nutritional value,” she says. She realized this was also true of adults. As subscribers to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, she and her husband received more fresh food than their family could consume so they gave the extra produce away. “But some produce, like kale,” she says, “I had to cook with other foods first before even adults would eat it.”
As a member of the People’s Food Co-op board of directors, Frayer knew that “access to food” means more than just having a grocery store within walking distance. “It’s also about wanting to eat fresh produce and knowing how to prepare it,” she says. “It’s about making food attractive and fun to eat.”
In the fall of 2010, Frayer attended Change Makers, a small business workshop hosted by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. She conferred with others about their passions to create change within the community. Using a whiteboard, she drew a caricature of a fairy and said she wanted to show people that eating “fresh food can be fun.” For this idea, she received a $250 business start-up grant.
The Fresh Food Fairy made her debut later that fall at Northglade, where teachers welcomed her gladly. She wore a rainbow of colors and created games to entice children to eat healthy food that most of them would usually avoid.
She instinctively knew the concept of “being healthy” wouldn’t register in a child’s mind so she asked the children, “Who wants to be stronger and smarter?”
“Of course, everybody does,” she says, “so I tell them that every part of our body works better when we eat lots of fruits and vegetables.”
For the adult population, Frayer created the Bike Blender Smoothie, a stationary bicycle with a food blender attached to the gear mechanism that she debuted at the People’s Food Co-op’s 100-Mile Market in 2011. With her sparkling personality, she enticed people to “ride the bike, blend a smoothie, buy the smoothie.”
She had hoped the Bike Blender Smoothies would fund the Fresh Food Fairy’s nutrition education program, but she discovered she had “way more fun giving away smoothie samples than selling them.” She changed her marketing strategy and now brings the blender to events, charging a fee to the host organizations, which are mostly schools, health facilities and corporations that sponsor wellness day events.
To her adult audiences, she explains “food miles,” the distance some produce travels from field to kitchen, and advocates eating locally grown produce. She talks about the nutritional value of dairy products from pasture-fed cows versus feedlot animals. She promotes organic and fair-trade commodities that have “great flavor and no child labor.”
Frayer also produces and markets her KALEamazoo Chips, crispy snacks made with kale. She and her employees make four flavors — Lemony Kick-It, Lime Coconut, Garlic Parm and Chocolate Chili — and they are experimenting with more. Labels on the containers tout the chips as “a superfood bursting with bold flavor.”
“The nutritional value is great so I tell people to ‘splurge on kale chips instead of cupcakes,’” Frayer says.
The People’s Food Co-op became the first retail location for her chips, and the product is now in several chain grocers and privately owned health-food stores throughout Michigan, including in Kalamazoo, and in Chicago and New York.
While Frayer is generous with her samples and recipes, she’s eager for her five-year-old business to show a profit. “I love doing what I love, and I’m grateful every day,” she says, “but I feel like I’ve been ‘volunteering’ long enough. Life isn’t all about money, but that is a measure of success. At what point is my work going to be legitimized by a salary, even if it’s small?”
In her next breath, Frayer acknowledges how far she’s come with her business, which, she says, “is pretty self-sustainable.” At first, she made kale chips at home for family, friends and consumers at farmers’ markets. Then she utilized Kalamazoo’s Can-Do Kitchen, juggling tight three-hour shifts with other entrepreneur food preparers. For a few months she shared a commercial kitchen with Bridgett Blough, the Organic Gypsy (Encore, May 2015).
Today she rents a commercial-grade kitchen at 309 E. Water Street, close to East Michigan Avenue. “I love the location a lot,” Frayer says, “but it’s huge and we’re underutilizing it, so it would help if we could share the space.”
With increasing demand for appearances by the Fresh Food Fairy, Frayer also expresses her wish for more “fresh food folks” to come forward and develop their own “characters”— not fairies, but characters who would wear outlandish costumes and have their own “fresh food identity.” Because her student audiences represent multiple ethnicities, she hopes one character creator might be a person of color. “It’s helpful for kids to learn from adults who look like them,” she says.
On the home front, the Frayers hope to one day own a permaculture farm, grow their own kale, raise free-range cattle and harvest fruit and nuts from their own trees.
In the meantime, Frayer, whose “whole mission is education,” will continue as the Fresh Food Fairy, pedaling her Bike Blender, teaching kids to have fun with food, and encouraging everyone to eat fresh fruit and veggies that will make them stronger and smarter.
Find Hether Frayer online at www.freshfoodisfun.com or search for “Fresh Food Fairy.” (Note: Stores place KALEamazoo Chips in various locations, so ask for them by name. You can also order them through Frayer’s website or make your own with her recipes, also found at www.freshfoodisfun.com.)