Kate Farms Shakes Up Medical Nutrition Industry
Patients Nationwide Now Opting Santa Barbara Company’s Plant-Based Drinks
By Matt Kettmann | December 24, 2020
Hans Rueffert was at the apex of his career as a chef in 2005, finishing in third place on Food Network Star and making media appearances around the country. Then suddenly, he was under the knife, having a large tumor removed from his gut. It was the first of 15 surgeries that, by 2018, would remove all but one inch of his stomach and esophagus.
While recovering in the hospital after that last surgery, Rueffert, who lives about an hour north of Atlanta, was shocked once again by the so-called “nutritional” fluids that he was about to ingest through a feeding tube. “There was not a single thing in there, other than water, that was recognizable as food,” he recalled upon looking at the package. “There was not a single thing that I as a chef would use as an ingredient, not even cheap ingredients. It was just a bunch of chemical stuff.”
Then a nurse mentioned Kate Farms, an organic, vegan, allergen-free option for this type of liquid nutrition, which is a primary method of feeding sick and recovering people across the world. “I didn’t know there was a healthy alternative,” said Rueffert. “Everything that was on the ingredient list were things that humans eat. It was such an epiphany moment.” Those Kate Farms nutritional shakes helped him recover quickly in the hospital, and the bottled versions remain a supplemental part of his nutrition today, enjoyed by his three sons, as well.
Rueffert is just one of many patients nationwide turning to products made by this Santa Barbara–based company, which is the country’s leading provider of plant-based nutritional shakes in the medical field. Today, 95 percent of American hospitals have access to Kate Farms products, which are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and more than 2,000 private insurance plans, and are also used by the Department of Veterans Affairs. To date, the company has raised $99 million from investors, including Goldman Sachs and Kaiser Permanente Ventures, and employs about 140 people. A third work at headquarters, located on the QAD campus above Summerland, and plans for a Carpinteria product development laboratory are in the works.
But as promising as that all sounds, it’s a top-down, do-good ethos that sets Kate Farms apart. They’ve donated more than 300,000 meals so far: to COVID frontline workers from Louisiana to Georgia; to election poll workers from D.C. to L.A.; to disaster relief efforts in Honduras and the 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito. And they’ve gone out of their way, often personally, to help patients in need during trying times, far more so than to be expected in today’s cutthroat capitalism.
Kristen Cover saw that firsthand while helping her 6-year-old son, Teddy, navigate a series of medical issues that kept him malnourished and tiny, still wearing 18-month clothes when he was four years old. Amid seven hospital stays, they found out about Kate Farms three years ago.
“We were allowed to bring it to the hospital with us because he could maintain his weight and rebound quicker on it,” she said. “After a few months, we started to notice growth like we had never seen before. He went from being in the 4th and 5th percentile to being in the 50th percentile. He’s hitting his developmental milestones now. He’s where he should be for a kid his age. It was just a lifesaver for us.”
When the company changed the formula at one point, Teddy didn’t like the taste, so Cover started to panic. She called Kate Farms, and they sent her some of the last cases of the former flavor for free so that she could wean Teddy onto the new formula. “For a company to do something like that — you just never hear of that anymore,” said Cover, who lives in Houston.
Teddy, who calls it his “milky,” still drinks about five cups a day, and the family ships cases of it to wherever they vacation. “There’s something calming about it,” said Cover. “I think it was the first thing that ever made him feel good when he put it in his stomach.”
The Kate Farms story begins with a young girl named Kate, who was born with cerebral palsy to a couple named Richard and Michelle Laver, who then lived in Santa Barbara. By the time she was 5 years old, Kate only weighed 16 pounds, was mostly paralyzed, and ate from a feeding tube. The formulas on the marketplace at the time were loaded with sugar, primarily in the form of corn syrup.
“She was dying — she could not survive on that stuff,” explained Brett Matthews, Kate Farms’ CEO. So the Lavers developed a plant-based, allergen-free formula to feed their child, launching Kate Farms as a company in 2011. “Kate had five a day for seven years, and she’s thriving,” said Matthews. “She is still functionally paralyzed, but she’s living her best life.”
Matthews path to Kate Farms was also personal. Raised on the East Coast, he met his wife, Lompoc native Ginger Salazar, while both worked for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. After getting married in Santa Barbara 29 years ago, they founded their own marketing company back in Ohio that focused on public-private partnerships. Upon selling that company in 2005, the couple, whose oldest son at the time was in 5th grade, moved to Santa Barbara to raise their family.
As Matthews and Salazar became involved in nonprofits and school boards, one of their very active sons started to become regularly sick, reaching a crisis point during his junior year at Santa Barbara High. Firm diagnoses were elusive, and one doctor even wanted to start chemo.
That didn’t sound right, so Matthews took his son to a cutting-edge clinic in Switzerland. Within eight days, the doctors there had diagnosed the illness and had his son on the path to wellness — all through nutrition, without any drugs. “What we learned is really the power of food to heal,” said Matthews. “In the United States, poor nutrition is the largest cause of death, whether that’s from cardiovascular or renal issues or from causing cancer. Bad food can make you sick, but also good food can heal.”
Matthews was fired up. “Why can’t we take this kind of philosophy into the United States and into health care?” he wondered. Then he met the Lavers through a mutual friend and decided to help take Kate Farms to the next level, becoming chair of the board and CEO in 2015. (The Lavers now live in Park City, Utah.)
“We invested with an eye to take this into health care and build an amazing team of people with big hearts who care about helping others,” said Matthews. “Plant-based organic food and nutrition is very vibrant in the consumer space. We’re really trying to bring that into the medical health-care space. That’s really been adopted because people are demanding a higher standard for themselves. They understand the benefit of nutrition.”
Competition to Crush
For decades, the medical nutritional fluid market has been dominated by the products sold by two multinational corporations: Nestlé, whose commercial product is Boost, and Abbott, which makes Ensure and PediaSure.
“Their products do work for certain people, but the ingredients they offer are not organic,” said Matthews, noting that even those big players have been adjusting formulas in recent years. “That’s why we’ve been able to grow. People would leave the hospital, and those formulas wouldn’t work long-term.”
That was the major concern for NaKeysha King, a model, cosmetologist, and editor in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2016, she ate a bad piece of haddock fish while visiting family in Pennsylvania and caught a disastrous bout of food poisoning caused by the parasite giardia. “Within a matter of weeks, I was no longer able to properly swallow, and I started losing weight,” explained Keys, who was already a petite 105 pounds but dropped down to 82.
Her health issues worsened so much that, by January 2019, she had a feeding tube permanently installed. “My concern was the formula. What if there was not a formula designed for me? What am I gonna do then?” wondered Keys, who was already eating a plant-based diet. Then she learned about Kate Farms.
“Immediately my body started to receive the formula — I started to get well, started gaining weight,” said Keys, who got up to 125 pounds from the formula. “The best thing about it is that there is no corn, no wheat, no dairy, no soy. Those are the kinds of foods that cause inflammation. If you already have inflammation in your GI tract, why would you want to inflame it more? That makes no sense.”
She doesn’t mince words when it comes to what Kate Farms means for her. “Without them,” she said, “I wouldn’t exist; I wouldn’t exist.”
Doctors are also quite taken by Kate Farms, including Dr. Richard Belkin, a pulmonologist who came to town in 2004 and started Santa Barbara’s first cystic fibrosis clinic, which now serves about 80 patients. Though often thought of as a lung disease, cystic fibrosis also attacks the pancreas, affecting the production of enzymes used to break down food.
Belkin met Matthews at a conference expo years ago, noticed that Kate Farms was nearby, and started recommending the product to his patients. “It’s a great and healthy way for patients to maintain their weight,” said Dr. Belkin.
But he’s also impressed with the focus on good flavors. “Eating is part of quality of life,” said Dr. Belkin. “You want to enjoy what you’re eating, and if you can enjoy a shake, it goes a long way. That’s as important for me as nutritional content.”
In fact, like most of the people interviewed for this article (not to mention the author), Dr. Belkin drinks them himself. “If I miss a meal, they’ve got adequate calories and the nutrition that I need,” he said.
Currently, Kate Farms products can be purchased via the company’s website or via Amazon, and Santa Barbara residents can find bottles on the shelves at Tri-County Produce. But the retail market is not the point, at least yet. “Right now,” said Matthews, “helping the medical market is our primary focus.”
About six months ago, Dana Quinn rushed her 12-year-old daughter, Lily, to the hospital, thinking her appendix was about ready to burst. Instead, doctors found that Lily’s small intestine was blocked, due to inflammation caused by Crohn’s disease. Surgery would be mandatory, but Dr. Alexandra Eidelwein suggested that Lily try a formula-only diet first, to reduce the inflammation and save as much of her intestine as possible.
“That was a huge commitment,” said Quinn. “I had to get my daughter, who’s about to be 13, get her brain wrapped around that. That was all she would be doing — drinking formula for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.”
That wasn’t the only problem, realized Quinn, as she looked around the formula market. “There are no good options that are healthy that don’t have crap in them,” she said, reiterating everyone else in this story. “If she’s going to be having this as a meal, I want the best ingredients in her body as possible.”
A pediatric gastroenterologist, Dr. Eidelwein had been using Kate Farms in her treatments for about three years, including about 200 patients at Valley Children’s Hospital near Fresno, her prior post before Santa Barbara. “There are different formulas out there that we can use,” she said. “But knowing that Kate Farms is organic, vegan, dairy-free, peanut-free, we’ve been using that around the country for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.”
Lily started on Kate Farms in the hospital, and it worked. But her mom didn’t have time to order a batch before heading back home to Ojai. Dr. Eidelwein made a quick call to Matthews.
“He drove to Ojai and delivered four cases of formula for Lily,” said Quinn of the CEO’s personal visit during a pandemic. “That made me cry. I’ve never experienced a company that would go out of their way to hand-deliver something. I felt like they really cared. It was pretty touching.”
No surprise, but Kate Farms worked for Lily too. “When she was on Kate Farms for those three months, the girl thrived,” said Quinn. “She gained weight. Her skin color, her hair — she was malnourished prior to being diagnosed. It’s just amazing how much she thrived on just those shakes. I think they played a huge role in her healing.”
Matthews knows from personal experience that his products help, and he hopes more can experience Kate Farms, particularly those most in need. “Nutrition can be the cornerstone of health, and everyone deserves it,” he said. “We’re trying to help people live their best life and also build a greater company. Those two things are complementary goals, and I think that’s important.”