Good for the Soul

Eat well while doing good


The holidays are upon us. What to do? You can drop a ten-spot on useless things that never move — fancy glass bowls and decorative pitchers come to mind — or you can buy a bag of granola made here in Little Rhody.

This wholesome, mostly-organic granola is irresistible: It tastes good and is lovingly whipped up by refugees trying to start over in a country that can be intimidating and tough to figure out.

The Providence Granola Project was founded by Keith Cooper and Geoff Gordon during a deep talk one night about how to help people who come to America with nothing more than a suitcase.

Keith, a Yale graduate and former campus minister who lives with his family on the East Side, had one of those aha moments. He’d been making granola for years in his kitchen. Why not turn his hobby into a business and mobilize refugees too? The two friends shook hands. A company was born.

That was five years ago, and Providence Granola is still going strong. In rented space at the Amos House soup kitchen in South Providence, the company makes 1,000 pounds of granola a month. With the holidays approaching, Keith hopes to sell even more and with a robust website and offerings that are as whimsical as they are tasty he’s sure to hit his goal.

My sons love the granola, especially Keith’s Originola, gone in seconds in our house. If you want more variety, check out the Granola of the Month recipe. Looking for a playground snack? Try Maple Rosemary, with organic rosemary from Keith’s garden.

Stomach of steel? Try Caramel Apple Corn, with popcorn caramelized in Sucanat. Need a lift? Try Ginger Zinger, with, you guessed it, ginger.

The granola is delicious (the indie actress Mary-Louise Parker is a fan) and ubiquitous (it’s available at Whole Foods and Eastside Marketplace, among other places), but what makes the company unique is its commitment to refugees from Iraq, Burundi, Eritrea, Myanmar, Liberia and other countries.

For years, Keith worked at the International Institute of Rhode Island, settling refugees here. The next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t afford that puffer coat from North Face, think about what it’s like to step off an airplane in a foreign country with a duffle bag and, if you’re lucky, a few family photos.

Keith was moved by what he saw at the institute — dignified and hard working men and women who want to succeed. With so many obstacles in their way — no money, language barriers, a different culture — you’d expect them to give up. But they don’t.

Providence Granola is all about opportunity. The refugees learn how an American business operates, improve their English, make money to support their families, and connect with two guys who get up every morning and think about how they can make life better for some of the most vulnerable men and women in our community.

Refugees get the experience and confidence they need to move on to other work. That’s important. Providence Granola is a stepping stone to full-time work. Some have found jobs in hotels, restaurants, and laundry services.

All the workers are amazing, but one in particular is courage personified. His name is Zaid Wadia, a 35-year-old Iraqi refugee.

He was born in Bagdad to a middle-class family. Life was good enough; then the United States invaded Iraq and everything crumbled. His brother-in-law was killed by a bomb. Zaid dodged bullets.

The family fled to Syria, but life there was dismal. Zaid went to Sweden, hoping he could eventually get to America and bring over his family. He spent a year selling hotdogs outside a bar.

Dejected, he went back to Syria. Just when he was about to give up, he finally got approval to come here. In 2010, Zaid and his wife and their two children arrived in Providence. Keith was one of the first people he met.

Zaid says he would be lost without Keith. Zaid has worked his way up to shipping and payroll positions in the company and even found a part-time job inserting ads for a newspaper. Self-pity is not in his lexicon. He is looking ahead and dreams of running his own business.

What’s even more remarkable about him is that he feels no resentment toward the United States. The invasion ripped his country apart. Still, he is thankful every day for his life here.

“Zaid is such an ideal Rhode Islander,’’ Keith says. “Our state was built as a place of refuge for people to come and have opportunities. It seems important to our identity to give refugees a chance to get started here.’’

Not long ago, Keith had another aha moment. Why not expand the concept of Providence Granola to lift up other people, not just refugees, who are also struggling financially and facing culture barriers?

Keith calls his new non-profit, Beautiful Day. The organization, awaiting its official non-profit status, would be a training center and business incubator. Keith wants to team up with businesses that can mentor, and he wants to build a co-op kitchen to train workers.

He needs money, either through grants or donations, and space, maybe in an old mill building. He’s also looking for volunteers to help out with everything from marketing to mentoring.

I hear about projects like this and wonder why our public officials and business leaders don’t jump at the opportunity to provide support. So much money is wasted in our state on dead-end pursuits that benefit the politically-connected.

I asked Keith if he had ever approached Mayor Angel Taveras, and he said no, so I’ll do it for him: Please, give Keith a call. His number is 1-855-OAT-GUYS.

You can’t go wrong: good food for a good cause.