5 Questions with Christina PioCosta-Lahue, Vivaria Ecologics

Published on Oct 31, 2022

5 Questions with Christina PioCosta-Lahue, Vivaria Ecologics

Vivaria’s mission is to reimagine food systems and how we approach food waste to create a more efficient, equitable, and cleaner future. Recapture waste, revitalize the soil, renew our world.

Over the years Christina has held management roles in the US and abroad in the education sector, government advisory work, agribusiness, and real estate and urban planning. Christina holds a Master in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a BA in Growth and Structure of Cities from Haverford College, and a high school degree from Kent Place School

Read below to find out what made her passionate about founding Vivaria Ecologics and how it went from idea to reality.


When did you decide you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Prior to founding Vivaria Ecologics, I had the opportunity to work in corporate, start-up, and consulting roles around the world. I especially enjoyed working on challenges that required a different way of thinking to solve. Of particular interest were projects related to agriculture, agriculture supply chains, and sustainability that I was able to work on both domestically and internationally with brands like Chiquita, Unilever, and organizations like the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. This work planted the seed that I wanted to one day lead my own venture in these spaces. 

While I was working as Expansion Director for Rising Academies in Liberia, which was about five or so years before I returned to New Jersey, I began thinking more concretely about the next chapter. My family, as a part of our commercial real estate business, had quite a bit of underutilized land. I knew I wanted to create a business focused on strengthening food systems and sustainability, so I started to sketch out ideas for utilizing the land in a way that benefits the community, and that’s how the Vivaria Ecologics began to take shape. 

What specific traits or qualities do you believe are most necessary for achieving success as a business owner?

In real estate, each piece of land is different, just as is every community you operate in.  Successful projects aren’t a product of simply taking a piece of land and putting a building on it.  Being a good leader requires the ability to work at the intersection of creativity and economics, while developing a clear set of values and guiding principles.  To illustrate the point, sustainability is often thought of as an add-on to business, which is ultimately a good thing, but sustainability can be your core business by stepping back and bringing a creative eye and applying clear values to a problem. 

That’s what we’re doing at Vivaria Ecologics. Food waste is a massive problem for all of us. Yet, you can flip that on its head and ask, what can we do with food waste that will not only prevent more greenhouse gas emissions, but also create new value? 

What does the next year have in store for you?’

We are developing our pilot project—a composting facility—on a farm that has been in our family since the 1960’s. The facility will help reduce food waste and convert it into valuable compost, which in turn helps enrich soil for agricultural and landscaping applications. We are working on plans to continue farming on the portion of property that is not being utilized for composting. We’re also having preliminary conversations in other parts of the state about how we can take underutilized land and put it to work to reduce food waste. 

How does your business help the community?

In 2017, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimated that we send, as a state, 1.3 million tons of food to landfill. Sending food to landfill creates several problems. First, it generates methane gas as it breaks down. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is contributing to extreme weather and climate change. Secondly, landfills take up space. The more food we send to landfills, the more space we need to accommodate it, which is expensive and ultimately can create issues for surrounding communities. Through diverting food waste and recycling it into clean compost, we can significantly reduce methane emissions and reduce the costs of expanding landfills. 

There are local benefits, too. Our proposed facility in Mansfield, NJ creates an opportunity for economic development that preserves the area’s agricultural heritage.  We’ll be creating jobs as well as creating a new rate-table. Additionally, we’re always looking at other ways in which we can improve the places where we do business. Right around the corner from our first site, we are working to preserve 71 acres of forest and have developed an approved plan with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection.  The plan will help improve the health of the forest and reduce the impact of invasive plants that can choke out native plants.    

Can you tell us something impactful you have learned in the last week?

One of the most enriching aspects of running a business is the opportunity to learn something new every day. As a part of launching Vivaria, I’ve really dug into composting mechanics and technology, food systems and the interplay between various parts of the food supply chain. Right now, I’m looking a lot at what is contributing to inflation in food prices. Our global food systems are interconnected, but not always efficient, and are more fragile than we might think. 

We generally experience food as an end product. You go to the supermarket, and there is food on the shelves. The increase in price is what most of us are feeling concretely now. But, how the food is produced and reaches shelves requires all of the links in the chain to work relatively well. When one, or several of those links break, like labor shortages, rising transportation costs, or production disruptions because of war, climate change and global pandemics, the consequences reverberate. 

In my work in launching Vivaria, we’re learning a lot about the very beginning and very end of the chain–food waste and the soil that is required to grow enough high-quality food. 

Why Valley?

Valley Bank has been an invaluable partner for our businesses. The Valley team takes the time to understand our goals and vision and works with us every step of the way to help us do good while building sustainable businesses.