While many of us are able to work from home during the pandemic, many essential workers have no choice but to risk infection and go to work. Workers at services like food banks and soup kitchens are especially at risk due to the nature of their work. Their efforts to help food-insecure individuals and households make it through the pandemic are truly heroic, which is why Herogard was founded with them in mind.
When most of us think of the essential workers that are getting us through the pandemic, our first thought rightfully goes straight to first responders and hospital staff. After that, the scope tends to narrow to what affects us directly in our day-to-day lives, so most privileged work-from-homers jump straight from nurses to baristas. While that is laughable, it is the unfortunate truth. Corporate efforts to help fight the pandemic seemed to be driven by that same thought process as clothing/athletics companies pivoted to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for those on the medical frontlines, with little focus elsewhere.
George Zheng, founder of the organic mushroom company Leep Foods, saw the food banks’ glaring need for PPE and decided to take action right as the pandemic worsened by founding Herogard. Using his resources in China, Zheng quickly created the PPE company with the intent of supporting food banks in Leep Foods’ local area—which also happened to be the area hit hardest by COVID-19—New York.
Zheng founded Herogard with the slogan “a mask for you, a mask for a hero.” For every mask sold, Herogard has been donating a mask to food rescue organizations Foodlink, Food Bank for NYC and City Harvest. Herogard initially partnered with Foodlink, and has donated 10,000 masks to the Rochester based organization, since the company’s inception. The high-quality masks—which are three times more effective than standard cloth masks—are available for purchase on the Herogard website.
We had the opportunity to talk to Zheng about the founding of Herogard, the COVID-19 pandemic and the future of the company beyond the pandemic in a marvelously in-depth interview that you can read below.
Grit Daily: Could you tell us a little about how Herogard was founded?
George Zheng: Herogard was started in the first week of April 2020 (immediately after lockdowns began), to help Rochester essential food organizations like Wegmans, Love Beets, Food Link and Leep Foods protect essential workers.
I have spent the last 4 years building the future of the meat extension category with my organic mushroom company Leep Foods, because of the overwhelming environmental and public health benefits we can achieve if factory-farmed meat is phased out. When SARS-COV-2 (aka COVID-19) hit, I had a moment where that dream seemed unattainable. Were we going to shut down just as we were about to launch our Balanced Blended Burgers? Ok, we’re essential, but what does that mean if all retailers are in crisis mode? How do we keep our team safe?
Then, I got a call I will never forget, it was my father calling from Shanghai where he runs a biotech company. As a trained doctor turned molecular biologist turned biotech entrepreneur, he was already well-acquainted with a renowned manufacturer of patented filtration materials that had just pivoted into producing face masks for the COVID-19 response. We quickly formed a partnership with them to get their FDA Class I protective face masks into the US marketplace.
GD: Your donations address a very important niche by supplying food banks with PPE. Is there a philosophical reason why you prioritized that industry?
GZ: This was a simple decision. Food inequality is a top-of-mind issue for me, as I’ve spent the last 6 years as a food entrepreneur witnessing how broken our food system is. Nearly one-third of the food grown in the US ends up in landfills, yet at the same time, approximately 40 million people are food insecure. With COVID-19, that appalling number has now skyrocketed in a matter of weeks.
If food banks are now seeing a surge in demands, that means longer lines and a greater risk of food bank workers getting sick with COVID-19. What happens if a food bank like City Harvest or Food Bank For NYC closes down because their drivers can’t deliver food? Although food insecurity won’t be solved with masks, Herogard wants to protect the people that have devoted their lives to feeding the hungry. These heroes need our support.
GD: Do you think enough is being done to help compensate and protect those workers?
GZ: I can’t speak to how these workers are being compensated across the board. However, what I do know is that Foodlink, the first beneficiary of Herogard masks in Rochester, NY, was quick to implement procedures to protect their employees by staggering shifts, restricting outside visitors, and applying all other guidelines provided by the CDC for essential businesses. Because of the dire shortage of PPE, food banks have had to make do with cloth masks and reusing scarce protective face masks.
There is a serious gap here, and it’s the reason we named the company Herogard; to draw attention to the important, selfless work of those who feed and nurture marginalized communities, even at the risk of their own health.
GD: How did your experience founding Leep Foods, a regenerative organic mushroom farming start-up, contribute to your business decisions regarding making and donating PPE?
GZ: I’m not sure I would have the operational knowledge of how to put up a new business without having built Leep Foods. Luckily, I am not needed on the manufacturing end of both companies. Leep has taught me the importance of focusing on unmet needs with ingenuity, and a mind for quality. Cutting corners will not work.
FDA-approved face masks, no matter what country they are manufactured in, have a rigorous set of quality standards that have to be met, including FDA facility inspections. Scaling up production of world-class face masks in a matter of months would have been impossible if we hadn’t partnered with a renowned manufacturer with the supply chain, production systems, and regulatory approvals already in place.
GD: What difficulties did you face importing PPE to the US from China?
GZ: The largest difficulties faced during the month of April came from restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. The rush of manufacturers pivoting into making masks to fill the need inevitably meant that more substandard masks were being produced. Because the melt blown fibers that give protective face masks their filtration efficiency are highly limited in supply, many cut corners and effectively created a true bottleneck in the entire chain.
Many new manufacturers didn’t do their homework, and couldn’t get these proper filter materials, so they cut corners. Others used lower quality string for the bands. This forced the Chinese government to raise restrictions on exporting face masks and other PPE, and creating a list of only 800 approved face mask manufacturers that could export. Our manufacturer is one of the highest rank manufacturers on the approved list.
Due to the nature and speed of this virus, Herogard as a brand did not exist until the end of March 2020. Luckily our manufacturer did, and the same Herogard masks being distributed here in NY are the same brand of masks preferred by the Government of Germany. This is because of a number of factors: the masks’ patented filtration material, comfort, and the high level of automation (which makes the production capacity less expensive and more reliable).
GD: As countries begin to re-open, will PPE production continue to be Herogard’s primary focus? What is next for Herogard once COVID-19 is fully under control?
GZ: A great question! We are actively undergoing regulatory approval for improved features to our protective face masks. This will allow Herogard to continue to help supply world-class face masks to those in need, particularly in the healthcare sector.
Herogard may have been founded to help supply much needed protective face masks amidst this global pandemic, but this is just the beginning. Fundamentally, our purpose is to empower individuals and communities to adopt a proactive and preventative model of healthcare, rather than our reactive, and expensive system of treating symptoms.
SARS-COV-2 (aka COVID-19) has made it blatantly obvious that our current system requires further tools and infrastructure that will enable us to stop or slow down disease progression by tackling their root causes.
We were not prepared for this novel coronavirus, but we must be for the next one(s).