Growing up in South Africa and witnessing the devastation wrought by the apartheid system, Michael Schwarz learned to never passively accept the norm. As the founder of Treeline cheese, Michael is not just rejecting injustices within the food system, he’s working to be a part of the solution:
What is your motivation for focusing on food?
Let me start by saying I really love good food. There’s nothing better than sharing a great meal with good friends or family. Good food brings people together. It makes us feel good. It’s sensual. Unfortunately, by relying so heavily on animals for food, humans seem to have created what Russell Simmons called a “karmic disaster.” Whether you believe in karma or not, it is clear that our reliance on animals for food is bad for the environment, for human health and for the animals. Everyone has to eat, so food is, in my opinion, the best route to good karma. Aside from providing people with great good, I see Treeline as having a bigger role. By making the right food choices we can help animals, be healthy and protect the environment.
What are some of your influences?
My parents, Annette and Harry Schwarz, were my biggest influence. I grew up in South Africa. My father went there as a child refugee from the Nazi persecution of Jews. He ended up in South Africa because his family was denied entry to the United States. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that he had left one form of persecution only to find another: the racist apartheid system. After World War II, he and my mother dedicated their lives to ending it and helping its victims. My father became a leading opposition politician and eventually became the first post-apartheid ambassador to the United States.
Even though I saw racism and cruelty all around me when I was growing up, my parents never allowed me to ignore it. They taught me that I should not accept something I knew to be wrong, just because everyone else was doing it. When apartheid ended, all South Africans were able to enjoy a far richer life, unfettered by racial prejudice. I think that animal exploitation will end too and our lives will likewise be richer for it. We will eat better food, be healthier, and have a far more peaceful relationship with our co-inhabitants of planet earth.
Just as my father became an ambassador for change in South Africa, I see Treeline as an ambassador for change in the way we eat – for compassion and good health.
What has been your most memorable moment with Treeline?
There have been a lot of memorable moments. Starting a food business from scratch is not for the faint hearted, particularly when the majority of people had never imagined your product could exist. There were a lot of setbacks and frustrations – and a lot of moments of joy. But one of those joyous moments stands out the most: We started out hand-delivering Treeline to local stores and stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. After persuading a lot of skeptical buyers, and a lot of parking tickets and frustration, we finally convinced some major food distributors to handle our product.
Then one day, there was a line of refrigerated tractor trailers waiting at our factory. The cheese they were picking up was bound for Whole Foods and health food stores and co-ops all over the country. When I saw those trucks, I knew that we were on the right track. People were buying vegan cheese. I knew things would never be the same again.
If you could be remembered for one thing, what would you want it to be?
I would like to be remembered for the delicious flavors and textures of Treeline, and at the same time, for all the cows and calves who were spared from suffering because of them; for the streams and rivers and air that would be cleaner and for the people who would be healthier.
What are you most excited about right now and why?
I am most excited about Treeline’s roll-out to the Kroger family of stores! Kroger is the biggest supermarket chain in the U.S. Having Treeline products available in stores from coast to coast, and particularly the middle of the country, sends a message to the world that great vegan cheese has gone mainstream. I could not be more excited about that.
Ditto. Thanks for your time, Michael, and for all you do to make compassionate eating so delicious!
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