From alum, a different way to chew

By
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Deep in the rainforests of northern Guatemala, nearly two decades ago, Deborah Schimberg ’80 P’12 found something to chew on – chicle, the original ingredient for chewing gum. Today she is the president of Verve, Inc., a Providence-based business that manufactures Glee Gum, an all-natural chewing gum.

While researching sustainable development in Guatemala in 1992, Schimberg discovered that chicleros, the people who harvest chicle from Sapodilla trees in the rainforest, depend on it for their livelihoods. After her trip, which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Schimberg used a few blocks of chicle from Guatemala to make experimental batches of gum in her kitchen. She and her three children loved the hands-on project so much that she decided to manufacture and sell a “Make Your Own Chewing Gum Kit.”

Eventually, Schimberg’s company began to offer kits allowing people to make their own chocolate or gummies.

“(The kits) connect people from different worlds,” Schimberg said. Each kit features a raw material, explaining the product’s origins and providing information about the community that has built its economy around it, she said.

Eventually, Schimberg decided to manufacture a unique chicle-based gum made of only natural ingredients, based on the belief that gum should not be harmful to people’s health.

“It has no artificial coloring, no artificial flavors, no artificial sweeteners and no preservatives,” Schimberg said. “If you look at most chewing gum today, almost all gum has aspartame in it.”

Schimberg said chewing gum became enormously popular after World War II, when it was included in American soldiers’ rations. As a result, after the war the demand and price of chicle increased dramatically. Companies developed a synthetic gum base to replace chicle, allowing them to have a “totally controlled product,” Schimberg said.

Although chicle is more expensive than synthetic gum bases, using it has allowed Schimberg’s company to create a product with a unique appeal while also helping sustain chicle harvesters.

“Our commitment to natural ingredients … made it easier for us to get a toehold in the market, and we did that through Whole Foods and other health food stores, which don’t carry conventional chewing gum,” Schimberg said.

Schimberg’s commitment to socially conscious causes began long before she cooked up plans to manufacture and sell all-natural chewing gum. The year after she graduated from Brown, Schimberg founded the Southside Community Land Trust, an organization promoting environmental sustainability in Providence. She has also worked as the principal of the Cloud Forest School, a bilingual school in Costa Rica that seeks to incorporate environmental awareness into its curriculum.

Glee Gum’s environmentally friendly practices have attracted its fair share of Providence retailers – including Blue State Coffee, the Brown Bookstore, the Coffee Exchange and Eastside Marketplace.

Alex Payson ‘03.5, co-owner and manager of Blue State, said the shop chose to carry Glee Gum because Schimberg’s company is based in Providence and because it offers an environmentally sustainable product.

“I think our first priority is to source locally when we can,” Payson said. “We also like to be as organic as possible.”

Schimberg strives to make her company socially aware. Verve, Inc. is a member of One Percent For the Planet, an alliance of businesses that donate at least 1 percent of their revenues to environmental organizations across the globe. The company also helps finance higher education for six children of chicleros each year through the Forest Foundation.

“We feel it both provides an incentive to chicleros and supports the next generation of professionals who have grown up with an understanding of what these issues are – the challenges that these communities face,” Schimberg said.