Skip to main content

People who make a difference: Selena Darrow

Addressing gaps in the area’s food system

share arrow printer bookmark flag

November 2, 2023

GREEN BAY – Growing up, Chef Selena Darrow said her parents always stressed the importance of not only thinking about her place in the world, but also being mindful of everyone else’s place in it as well.

“My parents raised me to work hard, but also think of others,” she said.

Darrow is the owner of Culinary Innovations – a Green Bay-based, full-service culinary service business, which she started in 2022.

The company, she said, focuses on overall market strategy – which takes inspiration from food, trends and culture to create products, recipes and content for a client’s brand.

“Our broad chef experience across the food service industry provides our clients with the customized solutions they need,” she said.

Getting her first cookbook at the age of four, Darrow said she’s always had an interest in cooking – and had no doubt she would be involved with the culinary world in some form.

“Even at a young age, I was a little entrepreneur popping popcorn and making recipes and selling them at school,” she said. “When I was in high school, I took over all of the meal planning and the grocery shopping – which obviously my mom loved.”

After high school, Darrow attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout for hospitality and tourism management and then food systems and technology before transferring to Fox Valley Technical College where she earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts.

From there, Darrow said she worked in a variety of industries throughout Northeast Wisconsin in their culinary sectors.

“If you name the industry, I probably worked in it when it comes to food,” she said.

Some of her roles included home economist chef at Good Humor-Breyers, culinologist chef at Birds Eye Foods, associate dietary technician at Bellin Health, senior consumer test kitchen chef manager at Pinnacle Foods Group LLC, corporate chef at Red Arrow, healthcare and school sales specialist at Reinhart Foodservice and pizza/Italian chef specialist at Reinhart Foodservice.

Describing herself as someone who needs to be passionate about the work she does, Darrow said she stepped back from the corporate food world about two years ago and launched Culinary Innovations after recognizing she didn’t want to just “go to a job every day.”

“I took a slow approach to growing my business,” she said. “And then toward the end of last year, I started to work actively with the service model of my business, which is important to me.”

Though her roles in the corporate food industry didn’t specifically focus on community service, Darrow said she participated in several company initiatives focused on giving back – serving as fundraising manager at Birds Eye and charity committee chair at Pinnacle Foods Group LLC, as well as volunteered with Live54218 (now Wello), New Community Shelter and New Leaf Foods.

As she got more involved with New Leaf, Darrow said she felt like there was more she could do in terms of addressing food security gaps in the Greater Green Bay area.

The skills she acquired over the past few decades in the culinary industry, Darrow said, helped prepare her for a new role as executive director of the newly launched nonprofit Rooted In Inc. – a path the Green Bay native said she never imagined she’d follow.

A long journey to here
The main focus of Rooted In, Darrow said, is to address the gaps in the area’s food system and support a sustainable local food system.

“I think one of the statistics that supported my desire to start the nonprofit is that 78% of our communities are food insecure,” she said.

Living much of her young adult life as a single mother, Darrow said she herself has dealt with food insecurity.

Because of layoffs during economic downturns, changes in the industry and company restructures, Darrow said she has struggled with fluctuating incomes, and in turn poverty, in the past and at certain points had to rely on social services programs.

With the help of volunteers, Selena Darrow said Rooted In picked nearly 300 pounds of apples from the De Pere public orchards and donated them to New Community Shelter, the Salvation Army and Trinity Lutheran Church’s pantry. Submitted Photo

“You hear about the people who abuse the system, but you don’t hear about the people where the system helped them grow and become sustainable,” she said. “Being a single mom taught me a lot about resiliency and facing challenges and not being pulled down by them and overcoming a lot of hurdles.”

Rooted In Inc., Darrow said, has provided her with an opportunity to be that helping hand for someone else.

“That’s what this community did for me to help me grow, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do the same for others,” she said. “We at Rooted want to be role models for the community and show them you can lift yourself up.”

Darrow said if people believe in themselves and love themselves authentically, “anything is possible.”

“It’s important to me that that’s part of the underlying reasoning behind the nonprofit as well,” she said.

An unlikely path
Never imagining she’d run, let alone start, a nonprofit, Darrow said the few months have been nothing short of a blur.

“Before I started the nonprofit, I had this devil-and-angel moment,” she said. “On one shoulder, the devil was saying, ‘you’re out of your mind. What are you doing? This is crazy.’ And then the angel on the other shoulder said, ‘but what about the impact you can have?’”

Selena Darrow

Initially, Darrow said a lot of time was spent identifying the skill sets of those involved with Rooted In, Inc.

As a seed-to-table focused organization, she said the Rooted In team has varying strengths.

“We have people who have gardening, food forest and arborist experience,” she said. “We have people who have worked in the nonprofit sphere. We have individuals, such as myself, who are small business owners.”

With its mission focused on helping those in the community who don’t have regular access to food, Darrow said establishing partnerships with other community organizations was a crucial part of the process.

“For example, we partnered with Leadership Green Bay and identified an apple orchard project, which led to us helping them put a community orchard in,” she said. “Partnering with them had us wondering about other possible orchards in the community.”

This, Darrow said, in turn led to a partnership with the City of De Pere and its urban orchards.

Since 2016, the City of De Pere has planted 80 apple trees at seven different locations throughout the city – sadly, Darrow said not many people are aware they exist and know they are able to pick fruit from them – therefore the fruit has gone unpicked.

“Bearing fruit at seven different locations – that is a lot of fruit that hasn’t been being picked,” she said. “We got some volunteers together… and in two hours, we picked 300 pounds of apples and donated them to the New Community Shelter, the Salvation Army and to Trinity Lutheran Church.”

Darrow said she is “definitely a doer,” and when she sees things she thinks should be done – she does them.

“As soon as I heard about these orchards, I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to call the mayor, and I’m going to start asking questions,’” she said. “Honestly, they were hoping that a nonprofit or group of concerned citizens would come forward and say, ‘we’re willing to do something about this.’”

The “bulldog, go-getter” attitude, Darrow said, is something she learned throughout her culinary arts career.

“What I’ve learned in my career is if you’re a smart leader, you will align yourself with people who are smarter than you – those who believe in what you’re doing, believe in your mission and believe in your value,” she said. “And that we’re doing this for the greater good of the community. It’s not a self-serving nonprofit – it is a resource for long-term sustainability. It’s important to me as the executive director that everything we do aligns back to our mission, which is to serve others.”

Rooted In, Darrow said, has four signature programs – Grow, Rooted in Love, Chef’s Table at the Market and Nourishment for All.

Though each area of focus has unique purposes, she said the overall mission remains the same – to create and maintain a sustainable local food system.

Grow is a program that supports edible gardening for all – which Darrow said is “an evolving program at this point.”

Chef’s Table at the Market, she said, is a program designed to create local recipes with all local ingredients.

“It’ll be a resource for our community to shop locally and shop at the farmers’ markets,” she said. “The goal for next summer is to have a chef’s table at one of the local farmers’ markets every week with a rotating roster of chefs doing a demonstration with vendor-donated ingredients and having recipe cards and nutrition education available.”

The program, Darrow said, promotes vendors at the market, shopping locally and eating healthy.

To help make this program a reality, Darrow said she recently convened the Brown County Farmers’ Market Coalition.

“We had our first meeting (recently),” she said. “There hasn’t been a lot of communication between these farmers’ market managers, so I’ve been able to help that and in turn get this program closer to reality.”

Over the summer, Rooted In partnered with community growers, including the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Bounty Garden, through its Nourishment for all program, which aggregated more than 1,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables that were donated to the food pantry at Trinity Lutheran – produce, she said, that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Darrow said the nonprofit’s last program – Rooted in Love – encourages green leaders in local schools.

“As a result of that, we have adopted Jackson Elementary (in Green Bay) as our seed-to-table school,” she said. “They have a food pantry, as well as garden beds. So, we’re assisting them in putting their gardens to sleep for the winter. In the spring, we are going to plant seeds with the kindergarteners and first graders. Then next summer, we will support a group of volunteers to maintain those gardens over the summer.”

The official ribbon cutting for the Rooted In Inc. office – which is housed at Trinity Lutheran Church in Green Bay – took place late last month. Submitted Photo

Darrow said they are also working with the Lombardi Middle School’s FFA group on a number of initiatives – including a food drive for Trinity Lutheran in November.

“We are also going to help them think about what they want for their school,” she said. “We had a cute little ideation session with them (earlier this school year) – (asking questions like,) ‘Do you want a pollinator garden? Do you want a native garden? Do you want fruit trees? Do you want a winter garden?’”

Darrow said allowing students to decide what they think is best for their school is important.

“Whatever they decide, we will support them,” she said.

Though the nonprofit only has a few months under its belt – launching in June – Darrow said she credits its success so far partly to the relationships she has created over the years.

“Relationship building has been key,” she said. “In general, people would frown on you if you’ve had a lot of jobs. However, in my case, having all of these types of experiences has set me up to see things going on in schools and in hospitals and in health care and in product development.”

Having those relationships she can now build off of, Darrow said, “is invaluable for a nonprofit.”

“I don’t think the progress we’ve made in three short months with the nonprofit would have been possible if I hadn’t been part of the community in a service capacity already,” she said.

A balancing act
Though she serves as executive director of Rooted In, Darrow still owns and operates her culinary consulting business – a balancing act she said comes down to timing and planning ahead.

“My business has two busy times of the year – March to May and September to November, which coincide with spring and fall food shows,” she said. “So, I work with my clients ahead of time… so I can manage the nonprofit in between.”

Having a test kitchen in her house, Darrow said, is definitely a big help.

“I have a sweet, fully-equipped and stocked test kitchen at home,” she said. “I can do a lot of product testing and recipe development without even leaving my house – except to get groceries. I end up working early in the morning and a lot of weekends to squeeze it all in.”

With that said, Darrow said to her, it doesn’t feel like work.

“I am doing what I love,” she said. “Typically, when working with food manufacturers, November and December are slow. Clients are busy with the holidays and most are at the end of their fiscal year, which means budget money has been spent and its planning season for the next year. I use these months to connect with current clients and new ones to plan work for the next year.”

share arrow printer bookmark flag

Trending View All Trending