From friendship to a force for food justice: How Josh Lee ’04 and Tommy Thekkekandam ’04 of Green Top Farms are tackling New York City’s nutrition crisis

News & Spotlights | July 24, 2023
Photo courtesy of Green Top Farms

By Sarah O’Carroll, Morehead-Cain Foundation

Josh Lee ’04 and Tommy Thekkekandam ’04 want to change how people think about food and believe reconnecting folks with their local farmers is the first step.

The two alumni are the co-founders of Green Top Farms, a farm-to-table catering and food service company based in New York City that relies on local supply chains to provide meals to schools, offices, and community centers.

We met with Josh for breakfast in the cafeteria at Netflix headquarters in Manhattan, one of Green Top Farms’ corporate customers. Looking the part in Patagonia overalls and work boots, Josh explained the serious threats to human health posed by a food industry addicted to high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and chemicals. So many chemicals.

“Nearly all Americans are malnourished,” he said, basing the description on the percentage of processed food that stocks our grocery shelves. “We’ve tilted the market so heavily in favor of items that have high fructose corn syrup, or highly processed soy or wheat, that we’ve narrowed the diversity of our food and therefore where we’re able to get nutrition.”

The problem is global. While the earth’s rising levels of carbon dioxide warm the planet, the extra CO2 causes plants to produce more glucose (and, therefore, less nutrition). In addition, modern agricultural practices have led to a dramatic decline in the quality of soils.

“Compared to twenty years ago, crops are less nutritious now, even if they’re coming from the exact same tree or bush,” he said.

Green Top Farms provides full-service catering to their enterprise clients, with all menu options created by the company’s chefs in Brooklyn. These chefs start with understanding the ingredients that are in season, sourced from regional farms, and then work backward, creating ever changing, always fresh menus.

“The fact that we must label food as ‘organic’ and that that’s not just the default is a problem,” said Josh, citing big food monopolies and the centralization of production as systemic causes for many of the threats to our food supply. In fact, he said, healthy food is economically beyond the reach of many, making sustainable food a social issue, as well.

The American food system has prioritized efficiency and profit over nutritional value, especially since the 1950s, said Tommy, leading to a “McDonald’s culture.”

“Americans expect food to be fast and cheap,” he said, “and that’s fundamentally in tension with both good nutrition and equity in our food system. When everyone’s used to that, how can you possibly pay the family farm worker enough?”

The beginnings of a partnership

Since their days together at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Josh and Tommy have been championing healthy food for nearly two decades. The partnership evolved from a fast friendship that began at the Morehead-Cain selections weekend.

By their second year, they were roommates, fellow psychology majors, and teammates on the wrestling team.

“We were always talking about food and nutrition, always talking about starting a business together,” said Tommy, who also earned a degree in political science from UNC–Chapel Hill.

In 2003, Tommy and Josh co-founded Nourish International with Sindhura Citineni, a UNC alumna who Tommy would eventually marry. The organization’s mission was to empower students to address global poverty.

What began as a humble student club eventually grew into high school and college chapters nationwide, producing a network of more than 800 students and over four thousand alumni.

‘This is dinner’

A self-described fifth-generation farmer, Josh grew up on a farm in Johnston County, North Carolina. Wrestling for Triton High School and then at UNC made him aware of the impact of good nutrition on performance in sports.

“I credit wrestling with me being in any sort of shape at all, because I don’t know if I would have learned about healthy eating if I didn’t have that motivation,” Josh said.

Less than a decade after graduation, Josh coached the first girls’ wrestling program in New York City through the Public Schools Athletic League. The program launched with sixteen teams for around 300 girls.

Josh said one day, he was getting snacks for the team after practice and reminded the wrestlers to be sure and eat a healthy dinner when they got home.

“This is dinner,” one responded.

That was one of what would become a long string of Josh’s first-hand observations of food insecurity issues within the city school system.

For several years, Josh taught as a special education teacher in the Bronx, the congressional district with the highest rate of poverty in New York City, according to The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. He eventually decided to trade in his teaching job to experiment in urban farming, with hopes of tackling the food insecurity he had witnessed.

Meanwhile, Tommy took a consulting job at McKinsey & Company in New York after earning a JD and an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Just as in college, the two alumni found themselves in the same city again, still ruminating on how to make a meaningful difference in nutrition, food insecurity and equity in the food system.

A $300 experiment

Their first startup idea was to create an environmentally controlled hydroponic farm using a retrofitted shipping container. They estimated a need between $75,000 and $100,000 to get started.

Per Tommy’s advice, the pair decided to test a smaller version first, starting with a budget of only $300 to build a micro irrigation system in an empty closet in Josh’s apartment. This system allowed them to harvest a variety of microgreens every week.

Fortunately, one of their first customers was Emily Johnson ’05, a partner at the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. Johnson and some fellow attorneys were eating salads every day.

“They said if we could make them a fresher, better salad, they’d order from us,” Tommy said.

Also helping the pair’s startup to flourish were fellow Morehead-Cain alums Venroy July ’04, a partner at Dickinson Wright PLLC; Phil Berney ’86, CEO of Kelso & Company; and Tom O’Keefe ’06, a climate tech investor.

Soon, Josh and Tommy were receiving requests for a great deal more than ready-made salads. Office managers started ordering full salad bars.

“We were selling dozens, then suddenly hundreds of prepared salads to corporate offices around the city,” Josh said.

Salad bars led to soups, hors d’oeuvres, and eventually full menus—all locally sourced. By the spring of 2020, Green Top Farms was a full-fledged food service.

‘Let’s go down swinging’

But we all know what also happened in the spring of 2020.

“The pandemic threatened to shut us down overnight,” Tommy said.

As they saw it, the leadership team had two options: Furlough the entire staff or “go down swinging.”

“We decided that if we really wanted to live this mission, we’d better go down swinging,” Tommy said, putting their chances of financial survival at 50-50. “But when would people need good, healthy food more urgently than during a pandemic?”

As thousands of businesses in New York City shuttered their doors, Green Top expanded, first by rapidly setting up a home food delivery business for workers and families stuck at home, then partnering with nonprofits across the city to deliver over 50,000 meals per week to schools and preschool programs, older-adult centers, and food pantries.

“In one of our weekly meetings, maybe five or six weeks into the pandemic, Tommy joked, ‘Okay, what business are we going to build from scratch with absolutely no experience this week?’” Josh said.

Soon, Green Top Farms became the only NYC based contractor for the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which launched in May 2020. Under this program, the company provided more than 11 million pounds of produce, meat, and dairy to over 1,000 locations, serving “almost every single food pantry and shelter around the city and Long Island,” Josh said.

Changing what it means to provide a ‘school lunch’

Since the pandemic has eased, Green Top Farms has expanded its corporate partnerships, continued delivering to homebound older adults, and recently launched an online grocery business for small-batch, prepared foods. And they have continued to expand their impact on school lunch programs.

Green Top provides 65,000 meals to schools monthly with plans to increase partnerships with charter, private, and independent schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Importantly, Green Top also facilitates cooking demos and educational programs to teach youth directly about how food is made.

Working toward systemic change, Green Top’s chief culinary officer, Anup Joshi, is a member of the NYC Mayor’s Chefs Council. There, the former Chopped champion is developing scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally relevant recipes for New York City’s Department of Education.

The power of the alumni network

For the past few years, Josh and Tommy have hosted multiple cohorts of interns through the Morehead-Cain Summer Enrichment Program. They regularly invite scholars and recent graduates interested in combating food insecurity to contact Green Top for job opportunities.

“If you know any promising, energetic professional looking to work on this mission, we’re always hiring, so please reach out to us,” Josh said.

To the alumni community more broadly, the co-founders invite Morehead-Cains in all industries, particularly education, policy, and retail, to connect with the company.

“If all of our ‘cousins’ out there would think creatively about their networks and whether there’s anyone they could introduce us to as a potential partner, that would help support our mission in a big way,” Tommy said.

Unlike a wrestling match, Tommy and Josh believe the fight against systemic inequity and food insecurity will never have a clear winner. Rather, they view sustainability and equitability as “directions” to travel in instead of ultimate destinations.

“We can always get more sustainable, and we can always get more equitable,” Josh said.