You are what you eat. You get it. Or do you? To truly comprehend the profound power of good nutrition, you need to meet the little girl who’s quite literally changing the world.
By Oliver Broudy
Having children changes everything. Any parent will understand. There are things we will do for our children that we would never think to do for ourselves. For their sake, there’s no authority we will not question, no odds we will not defy. It’s because of this that Kate Farms exists today.
It all began with a girl named Kate. Kate arrived in this world small and early, but no less determined to live. When Kate was two weeks old, an MRI scan revealed a tiny black dot on her brain. One doctor said there was nothing to be worried about. Another said she would never live a normal life.
“We were holding out hope,” says Michelle, Kate’s mother. “She was so pretty and delicate and gorgeous. And we were so in love.”
For Richard, Kate’s father, Kate seemed like a miracle. When Richard was younger he survived a catastrophic plane crash that took the lives of hundreds. Memories of the crash weighed on Richard like a curse, erasing the joy from his life. Kate’s arrival lifted that curse and seemed to suggest that joy might still be possible.
But as time passed Kate was not meeting her milestones. Michelle remembers putting a rattle into her hand when she was five months old and closing her fingers around it, but Kate could not hold it.
It eventually became clear that Kate had cerebral palsy, a movement disorder that can sometimes involve a learning disability. Even so, to her parents, Kate remained perfect in every way. And as the years went by the nature of this perfection began to be visible to others as well.
There was something about Kate. She had a glow. She took delight in the world and the life around her, liking nothing better than to sit in the presence of others and listen to their talk. She listened as if it were music, and using only her blue eyes and her smile she was somehow able to amplify this music so that others could hear it like she did.
Only 16 Pounds at Age 5
Kate’s condition made eating difficult, and by the time she was three the hospital had put her on a liquid meal replacement formula to supplement her diet. It wasn’t long before the formula began to take its toll. Suddenly Kate was throwing up a lot and suffering from acid reflux. The reflux led to bottle rot, requiring intensive dental surgery. Then her airways got stuffed up and at night she could barely breathe. Her immune system weakened, and every year she got pneumonia. Gradually, Kate was wasting away. By age five she had dark circles under her eyes and weighed a mere 16 pounds.
Kate was not a complainer. This was and remains part of her mystery. Her limitations always bothered Richard and Michelle more than they bothered Kate. Sitting by the side of the pool, for instance, Kate was never upset that she couldn’t play in the water like the other children. That they were happy was enough for her. Even at a very young age Kate possessed an almost uncanny maturity, divining the anguish that her limitations caused her parents and working to reassure and care for them even as they cared for her. Until finally she got so sick that she couldn’t anymore.
Richard had known something was wrong with what she was eating. Seriously, deeply wrong. All you had to do was look at the ingredient label of the leading nutritional formula to know this for a fact. The top four ingredients were water, sugar, corn syrup, and maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a highly processed carbohydrate known for causing blood sugar spikes, suppressing the growth of probiotics, and having no nutritional value whatsoever.
By this point Michelle had reformed Richard’s own eating habits enough that he was doing all their food shopping at an organic grocery. Every time he went he felt the same sadness, that he and Michelle got to eat fresh, healthy food while Kate had to make do with industrial-grade sugar water. The whole thing seemed backward. Why would you serve the sickest, most vulnerable people the least healthy food?
One day, after three years of formula, Richard asked Kate’s doctor about it.
“What would happen to me if, for three years, I didn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Richard inquired, “and all we worried about were fats and calories and vitamins?”
“Well,” the doctor said, “the likelihood is that you’d have an autoimmune disorder of some kind.”
“Right,” said Richard. “So why would we expect anything different for Kate?”
A Father’s Hail Mary Pass
This is the agony of parenthood: that you have so little control over what you love most. Richard couldn’t fix the system any more than he could reach into Kate’s mind and erase that little black dot. But it seemed to him that he could at least do this, the number one job of any parent, man or animal: Make sure his little one was nourished by good, healthy food.
As chance would have it, a dietitian friend of Richard’s was visiting at the time, and together they examined the ingredients on a bottle of formula. It was a light bulb moment. Tearing off the label and shoving it in his pocket, Richard and his friend lit out for the local organic grocery.
“The plan,” says Richard, “was to see if we could rebuild the entire ingredient list using only healthy, organic foods.”
Feverishly working their way through the store, using the formula label as a shopping list, they began selecting ingredients. Oat milk to replace the milk protein concentrate. Flax oil to replace the hydrogenated oil. Hemp and pea protein to replace whey and soy. Real, organic bananas to replace the cheap potassium supplement. Brown rice syrup to replace the maltodextrin and corn syrup. The list went on.
Soon the shopping basket brimmed with everything necessary to assemble a fully organic nutritional shake that Richard could feel good about feeding his daughter.
Back home, it all went into the blender. And in the days that followed Richard experimented with new combinations, tweaking the ingredients to get the best mix. Almond milk replaced the oat milk. One thing he was realizing was that it doesn’t matter how good the ingredients are if the body can’t absorb them. Therefore, the new formula had to be not only healthy and organic, but also hypoallergenic.
By this point Richard had become a familiar figure at the organic grocery, where he was spending $100 a day on fresh ingredients. Rooting through a pile of sweet potatoes one day, he was struck by a new idea.
“I thought, ‘If Katie keeps getting sick, then her immune system is broken. So it’s not enough to just mimic another shake. We need an entirely new kind of shake, with antioxidants, and superfoods, and everything she needs to help rebuild that broken immune system.’”
That’s when he realized what had been wrong all along. The shake makers thought of food as merely fuel, as if the body were just an engine, and not an active, critical partner in the pursuit of good health.
Richard redoubled his efforts, combing the planet for all-natural superfoods to fortify the new shake—acerola from Mexico, mangosteen from southeast Asia, camu camu from Peru. Michelle manned the blender, recording each new version of the recipe in a special notebook she kept in the kitchen. Soon they began packaging the shake in mason jars for Kate to take to school.
They knew it was working because Kate began thriving. Her hair shone, her eyes cleared, her skin bloomed. Her sleep and digestion improved, and her energy levels returned.
Michelle was so impressed by the transformation that she became vegan. Richard’s diet improved as well, and suddenly he could run farther on his twice-weekly workouts, and rebounded faster when he got sick.
For the first time, Kate and her parents were able to share the same food. It seemed like such a small thing. But somehow it wasn’t. Because Kate was no longer different from them. At the table they were all the same. A family.
Kate’s Shake Becomes Kate Farms
Richard was shocked that something as simple and basic as nutrition could change the entire family dynamic. It wasn’t just meals. Now that Kate wasn’t spending most of her time in the hospital, for instance, all the energy Michelle and Richard had poured into caring for her and worrying about her could now be used for something else. Like just being with her and loving her for who she was.
Meanwhile, the voices of the medical experts faded to the background. Because Richard and Michelle had learned something important. That they could understand their daughter’s needs in a way that no expert ever could. As caregivers they had learned to trust themselves.
Now they were ready to return to the experts, and tap their knowledge to make the shake even better. They submitted the new formula to a panel of pediatric nutritionists and dietitians and began gathering feedback and making adjustments—fine tuning the lipid levels, boosting the iron content, strengthening the amino acid profile.
By this point the whole project had taken on a different quality. Other people had heard of Kate’s shake and began asking for it. Somehow, without their even knowing it, what had begun as a labor of love had grown into something larger, something maybe even really important.
There was a dawning realization that this new kind of shake they were creating might actually offer a serious answer to the systemic problem they had first noticed months earlier. The realization came with a kind of breathless shock. This wasn’t just about their Kate anymore. It was about the thousands, maybe millions of other Kates out there, who were all needlessly failing to thrive for the simple reason that they weren’t being given the right food.
Which is why it was so devastating when they received a message from Kate’s school saying that they could no longer allow her to bring her shake into the classroom unless it was commercially packaged and sealed.
Richard fumed. But there was no way around it. They had to put Kate back on the old, industrial-grade formula.
Within a week she was sick again. That’s when Richard made the decision. He had seen Kate thriving. He’d had a glimpse of what her new shake might be able to offer others. He could not turn back from that. If a commercially packaged product was what they wanted, that’s what he would give them.
Everyone said it was impossible. Two corporate goliaths dominated the entire nutritional shake market. The barrier to entry was impossibly high—which is part of why the existing formulas were so terrible, and so out of tune with the times. Because no one had ever been able to break into the business to offer a healthy alternative.
Richard was not discouraged. By his reasoning, the odds didn’t matter. He had already survived a plane crash. He had seen the plane break in half at his feet, seen a fireball rush at him down the aisle. Yet somehow he had lived, and become the father of an extraordinary child. For her, he would gladly face that fire again. For her, what wouldn’t he do?
The Laver family, summer 2017
There’s a principle here. It’s a principle that gets to the heart of what Kate Farms is all about. Only love makes true change possible. Because only love can make the obstacles to change seem so irrelevant.
Two years and 70 home batches later, in 2013, the first commercially sealed bottle of Kate’s shake hit the shelves. It wasn’t long before Richard and Michelle launched another version of the shake for the retail consumer. Since then, Kate Farms products have nourished tens of thousands of people around the world. And because of the high-quality nutrition in each bottle, it's now covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance, making it more accessible to families with medical conditions.
But if Richard and Michelle have learned one thing, it’s that there’s no real difference between those who happen to have a medical diagnosis and those who do not. We all want to thrive, to be healthy, to give ourselves the best chance to succeed.
Take it from Kate, now thriving like a flower: It all begins with what you eat.