By Kate Gordon-Smith
1. Where did you get the idea to start your plant-based meal delivery service, Balance Me?
Olivia: It’s been a long journey which goes back to childhood. I’m one of six children and my parents were third generation farmers. Our meals were very much meat and three veg. My father passed away from a sudden heart attack at the age of 46. While heart attacks ran in our family, my grandfather survived three and lived until he was 83. My mother was a naturopath and we never really went to Western medicine doctors. My father passing away was the beginning of my understanding of the influence of food and lifestyle and that it matters more than we know.
Before Balance Me, I worked as a ski instructor, meeting many different people from different walks of life and eating backgrounds. No matter where we were in the world, it was interesting to watch how food affected people, to see how food affects mood, energy and physical ability. These observations reignited this passion around food is medicine. The Canadian food system was so disjointed, I was having reactions to everything and the children I was teaching believed chocolate milk came from brown cows, same with orange cheese!
Then we moved to Japan and found a whole different way of thinking about food. At that point, I was gluten-free, dairy-free and additive-free. Pretty much everything they eat has gluten in it, so my partner was really worried about my digestive health issues. By the third day in Tokyo, I decided to dive into Japanese culture and have a ramen. I had no adverse reactions at all! This is where I really started to understand the detriment of food processing. Yes, they have wheat, but when you look at the ingredients, it’s wheat flour and water, that’s it.
When we came home, I studied nutrition psychology through Massey and, as a side job, started cooking in people’s homes, giving them a greater understanding of more diversity. From there it’s grown into what it is today – a plant-based meal delivery service, in-home meal prep and educational cooking nights helping people understand more about what we’re putting in our bodies.
2. We admire your holistic approach to nutrition, environment, wellbeing and community and your focus on sourcing local ingredients and composting/reusing where you can. Have you found it relatively straightforward setting up a business based on these values, or have you had any roadblocks or big learnings along the way?
Olivia: Yes, it’s been a rollercoaster!
The cost of production, for example, when we were starting out, suppliers said we were too small and wouldn’t supply us wholesale, so we did a lot of things through New World and Honest Wholefoods. They’ve been amazing but there’s a higher cost. Now we’ve been in business for 18 months we are going back to those suppliers to buy bigger quantities, which helps make our products more accessible to everyone.
Compostable containers required several supplier changes before we found containers that keep our food fresh for 4-5 days. We’re still struggling to find a container that holds soup without collapsing.
The time it takes to soak and cook all our own legumes and grains. How much easier would it be if we just used canned beans, but so many people say they can eat our beans without adverse effect, unlike canned beans which make them bloat and experience discomfort. That’s because we’re soaking and cooking them properly.
Another goal is to reteach nutrition, so when people ask if we could include meat options in our menu, no, we’re a vegan company. You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy our food, and we’re just trying to give you options, even one meal a week. Our menu originally had 5-10 portion options, but now we offer a 3 portion option so people can break down those barriers with some plant based meals. There’s a misconception that it’s not a meal without meat.
3. What’s your favourite local ingredient to work with and why?
Olivia: There are so many to choose from, but fresh stonefruit springs to mind. We have an abundance all around us here and, this season, we’re really excited to bring in all that locally grown fruit.
We are so lucky to have the most amazing suppliers in Wanaka with their vision for Wanaka, for food, for the environment – they’re just out the gate. Lisa at Frog Song Farm – I have never tasted greens so powerful! I love talking with Lisa about food and how she grows it. Ruth at The People’s Bread and her desire to reteach bread. There’s a fear around bread, but she uses eight different grains in her rye bread! And Em from Good Roots, with her raw foods, is just incredible. She’s taking away the guilt of food, creating good food and enjoying it.
4. When you’re not busy working, where do you like to go for a meal in town?
Olivia: I love Bombay Palace; they provide food for everyone. You can go there with a coeliac, someone allergic to chilli or vegan and they’ve got you all sorted. It’s a really inclusive place and the service is great.
I do think some Wanaka restaurants have a way to go to bring on more plant-based options on their menu.
We’ve done some work with Alchemy after our educational nights held there and their chef Daryl had so much desire to learn, they put a tofu scramble on their menu. There are so many options with products like tofu so many people are on a path to learn more about how best to use them.
5. Can you share a recent recipe with us please? What was the inspiration behind it?
Olivia: I’m constantly creating new recipes but thought of our vegan Thai coconut soup. It’s amazing in winter, really nourishing and warming. In summer you add coriander and lemongrass to bring new life to it. It’s still super nourishing and fresher for summer. You can utilise vegetables and greens in season – potatoes and mushrooms in winter, red peppers and greens in summer. The inspiration comes from putting a pot of soup on the table to share and the different textures and tastes we create by which ingredients we choose to put in our own bowl. It creates a new understanding around food and encourages others to think and maybe try that combination.