4Roots Farm and Agricultural Center gets fresh produce into public schools—and jump-starts a much bigger idea
by Scott Joseph
When he opened the third location of his burgeoning barbecue brand, in 2011 in Longwood, John Rivers looked at the cash register at the ordering counter and said that it was his least favorite place in the restaurant.
It’s not that he was intimidated by the technology or that the business side of the restaurant flummoxed him. On the contrary, before he began his path to becoming the area’s smoked meats mogul, Rivers had a successful career in the world of business, including as president of CuraScript Specialty Distribution, managing a $1.4 billion pharmaceutical operation, and as director of the strategic business group for Johnson & Johnson, Cordis Division. He is not intimidated by money.
The reason he didn’t like the cash registers in his 4 Rivers Smokehouse restaurants was that he didn’t feel right making money from his barbecue. Although he didn’t open the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse until 2009 (it was Four Rivers back then), Rivers started producing barbecue in 2004 as part of a fundraising effort to help a local family that was struggling with high medical bills due to a child’s illness. It was popular, and it prompted an ongoing “barbecue ministry” to help others in need.
So when Rivers left the corporate world and moved his barbecue hobby out of his garage and into his first full-fledged restaurant, there was no question that there would be a charitable element built into the 4 Rivers Smokehouse business plan. In 2017, the 4R Foundation contributed nearly $942,000 to more than 1,000 charities, educational institutions and faith-based ministries.
But he wanted to do more. So he discussed the possibilities with his wife, Monica. “I sat back and said, ‘You know, we do a lot with our foundation today. What’s something we could create that would be lasting, beyond our name, beyond the company?’”
The answer was produce. And what has become 4Roots Farm and Agricultural Center.
“You wouldn’t think a barbecue place would be in farming,” Rivers said over breakfast recently at COOP, his Southern restaurant in Winter Park. Cattle ranching, maybe. The 4 Rivers chains purchase about 2 million pounds of beef brisket a year. The next biggest asset for the company is produce. “We buy about 3 or 4 million dollars of produce per year,” he said.
As he examined the subject, he was dismayed at what he learned. According to Rivers, the produce that Central Floridians have on their plates has traveled an average of 1,872 miles. “And we live in Florida,” he said incredulously. “It’s so sad, and you think about every mile and every day that food sat on the ground it loses nutritional value” and adds cost to the product.
And as he researched further, he came upon a statistic that shocked him: There are 60 million missed meals in Orange County per year, and one in six children lives in food insecurity.
“This is the first generation in history where the children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” he said. “That’s never happened before, and it’s all around food.”
He also learned that a small amount of money was available for school lunch programs, and it didn’t last long. “At the beginning of the month they have salads with shredded carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers,” he said of the school lunches. “At the end of the month, when the money’s gone, it’s just lettuce. It’s just sad.”
So Rivers approached Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, or what he could do, but he was willing to make an investment to see if he could help the schools from an educational perspective.
He told Jenkins that he wanted to get kids excited about agriculture, “and at the end of the day, I want to get fresh produce into the school system.”
Several Orange County schools have existing agricultural programs, so Rivers figured the foundation could just help build out the programs, develop farms at the schools and those farms would produce the food to feed the students. Plant it, grow it, eat it. Simple.
“We were a little overambitious in the beginning,” Rivers said. The school system, he learned, buys about $5 million of produce per year. There was simply no way to produce that much volume, even with the approximately 10 schools with agriculture programs.
So he decided to concentrate on just three schools to begin, focusing on education first, then production.
He was first taken to Ocoee High School to look at its agriculture program. But it was, in Rivers’ words, in terrible shape. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do it here?’ And they said, ‘Well, this is where we need it.’” Rivers applied for a grant and got approval to appoint a University of Florida agriculture teacher to work side by side with the Ocoee ag instructor.
A greenhouse followed, and farming experts from Epcot were consulted on hydroponic growing techniques. “Now we’re building a production center so they can actually take the produce and hold it, clean it and then bring it back into the school system.”
The second school to be chosen for the project is Edgewater High, which does not have an existing agriculture program, so they’re starting from scratch. It also doesn’t currently have any land it can farm, but Rivers said that should be solved soon. “We’re not only building the ag program and the structure, we’re bringing in the teachers who are helping to write the curricula.” Rivers said the Edgewater program will start out with a processing center, and it will also operate a farmers’ market.
“I thought, what a neat way to teach the kids about entrepreneurship. And also teach them about capitalization—they can’t just grow it, they’ve got to grow it in a manner that it can actually be sold.”
A third school for the program will be announced soon. But in the meantime, Rivers is working to get local farmers involved in the program, helping them to learn about new farming techniques to make them more efficient and profitable. And to bring other charitable institutions onboard. He has already forged partnerships with Florida Hospitals and Dr. Phillips Charities, among others.
And his background in strategic planning from his days in the corporate world keeps him coming up with new ideas: a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida to process, package and label foods that can’t be grown here, then buying the food from Second Harvest; generating funds for the food bank’s programs; a co-op for local farmers; a restaurant with a top-notch chef and generating profits to be dedicated to the community’s food deserts.
“At the end of the day, we live in Florida,” Rivers said. “It’s an agriculture state; we should have something that’s more key for the whole country to look at.”
And what will Rivers get out of it? “We’ll benefit from fresh produce,” he said. “Look at those tomatoes,” he said, pointing to the pale red and well-traveled tomatoes on his guest’s breakfast plate. “That’s where we’ll benefit.”