Her granola business helps families in Congo

Lisa Cherbuliez launched FUNdamentally Nuts after serving in the Peace Corps. A portion of its proceeds goes to people she knows in the village where she lived and worked.

John J. Happel/The Christian Science Monitor
Lisa Cherbuliez makes granola and spiced nuts at her Needham, Mass., home.

Lisa Cherbuliez’s granola business may be local, but her venture grew out of a commitment to the Congolese village where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer more than 25 years ago.

Motivated to explore the world after she graduated from college, Ms. Cherbuliez volunteered in Zaire, now known as Congo, from 1985 to 1989. She saw the Congolese as a tremendously intelligent people beset by grueling poverty, and she wanted to give back to the village where she had lived and worked.

So in February 2013, Cherbuliez launched FUNdamentally Nuts, with the idea that proceeds would help a few Congolese families she knew. She makes the granola right in her home kitchen in Needham, Mass. – an activity that's in addition to her job at a health-care company.

Cherbuliez's efforts are a reminder that "making a difference" doesn't have to involve helping hundreds of individuals, and it doesn't have to be one's full-time occupation. Much of the time, helping people is on a smaller, more personal scale.

“I’m a person who stays connected for a very long time,” Cherbuliez says. “My link to that village is just part of being of service to people around me.”

Cherbuliez describes her business as offering distinct products and flavor combinations, with a lighthearted side – examples being strawberry and rhubarb granola and a flavor called Cashew Coconut Crunch. She sells the items at a local farmers market and online, at prices slightly higher than those for the granola products available in grocery stores.

Starting the business required Cherbuliez to make modifications to her kitchen. She had to take a training course on responsible food handling and sanitation, which enabled her to get a ServSafe certificate. She also added an oven to handle the baking load.

“Lisa is part and parcel with her ... products,” Sue Ullman, one of Cherbuliez’s customers, writes in an email. “Her granola ... is quality you can taste.”

Cherbuliez’s home is filled with memories of her time in the Peace Corps, an experience she describes as life-changing. Her kitchen holds wooden plates with a traditional pattern carved on the sides, which were purchased from a restaurant where she ate. She also has place mats woven from banana leaves, given to her by a woman who taught her Swahili.

“Memories are triggered by things,” she says. “The memories of that time, even though it’s now 25 years ago, are very much here.”

Cherbuliez began helping two families from the village well before she started FUNdamentally Nuts. For the past quarter century, in fact, she has regularly sent packages to the families of the woman who taught her Swahili and a woman who was her next-door neighbor.

She initially intended for all profits from FUNdamentally Nuts to go directly to Congo, but realized the difficulty of doing that with a home business.

Still, she has maintained a smaller, though no less significant, commitment.

“My goal is to help them pay for healthcare and student school fees,” Cherbuliez explains in a follow-up email.

The families of the two women have grown since she began helping them. There are now almost nine families, she estimates, with 32 children between them.

But sending packages filled with clothing, bedding, and other supplies comes with its own difficulties.

“One of the challenges I have with Congo is there’s no reliable way to send anything there,” Cherbuliez says in her home kitchen. “So [I] always have to find a traveler who’s willing to hand-carry a package.

“I just rely on somebody’s goodwill,” she continues. “And I’ve never been disappointed.... While Congo is in terrible shape in large part due to the not-so-goodness of humanity, there are just so many pockets of light, [and] I’m glad I’ve found a venue to support [that].”

Cherbuliez says her granola business has also been a way to bring out a personal connection to the food we eat.

“Our culture, society has moved towards faster food. We’ve lost a little bit of our connection to eating [as] a source of nourishment,” she says. “And so when someone buys it at a farmers market, they’re buying it from me. If someone orders it on my website, I’m the one shipping the package, and so there’s a personal connection.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” she says.

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