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The truth about cannabis? Ask the founder of Red Belly Honey

Cover Image for The truth about cannabis? Ask the founder of Red Belly Honey
By Sophie Brochu

The odds were stacked against Joline Rivera. Born into a broken home and raised by a single mother struggling to make ends meet, Rivera often found herself tasked with helping around the house and taking care of her younger sibling. Despite a difficult upbringing, Rivera fought for financial independence, worked her way through college, and built a powerful career in food media. Today, Rivera is busy running Red Belly Honey, the world’s first whole-plant, full-spectrum hemp honey-infused by honeybees. See what this ambitious entrepreneur has to say about cannabis, trends, and leveling the playing field for other minorities.

Tock: Red Belly Honey is the world’s first whole-plant, full-spectrum hemp honey-infused by honeybees. Why is this a product that the world needs?

Rivera: If we’ve learned anything by this past year, it’s that we are responsible for our health. There’s never been a better time with the pandemic numbers lowering and no one is sure if it’ll come back this winter. I’m a true believer that hemp is food, and food is medicine. I believe in eating foods that can provide more than just nutrition. I believe in natural functional foods that taste amazing. There is an enormous amount of junk food and refined sugar being infused with CBD/hemp…which is counterproductive for this amazing plant. Our honey is infused by the honeybee and in turn, when bees eat hemp terpenes, it’s helping them fight off the poisons from pesticides and live as long as the bees that are never exposed to pesticides. Red Belly Honey is a win/win/win for us, the bees, and the environment.

“Hemp is food and food is medicine.”

Tock: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of making the honey? How involved are you in production?

Rivera: Red Belly Honey apiary sits in the middle of a 250-acre hemp and wine vineyard in the middle of Santa Maria, CA wine country. The bees are surrounded by nature. They have access to wildflowers and plants they forage and gather from. They’re also offered whole-plant, full-spectrum hemp nectar. When they eat this, they break down the oil-based hemp nectar in their bee belly, and because they don’t have an endocannabinoid system they express the cannabinoids into their honey for us. Making the first CBD/hemp food that’s naturally infused, single-ingredient, and water-soluble. I’ve been to our apiary more than a few times to see the honey harvest. It’s quite amazing and I try to get out there as often as I can. But most of the day-to-day, just checking the hives and making sure all is good is done by our team on the farm.

Red Belly Honey allows the bees to infuse naturally.

Tock: You have a BA in graphic design and a master’s degree in advertising design. Do you do all of your design and advertising?

Rivera: I’m always involved in the initial creation of all visual, brand, and marketing material when it first starts, but I have an amazing team of creatives who have really taken over. I have a lot on my plate so I have to pass that along to capable hands. If I’m involved now, it’s mostly because we might be doing something new and it always gets run by me. It’s been quite a challenge for us…Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok won’t allow for any CBD/hemp food promotions due to this unregulated industry. We don’t have the options most mainstream brands do…our hands are tied, so it’s nearly impossible sometimes to get the word out about how amazing our hemp honey is.

Tock: How did your background as a creative director and trend-spotter lead you to Red Belly Honey? What trends are you most excited about right now?

Rivera: As a 20-year creative, I’ve spent most of my time working in food media. I was given my first shot at it when I became the creative director liaison for Meredith Publishing and Food Network partnership. I was producing, directing, and designing a series of cookbooks for Food Network Kitchens. It was then I fell in love with food and talking and working with food creators, recipe developers, and chefs. I then moved on to Chicago’s top 20 restaurant work for Chicago Magazine, Kraft Foods, Bobbly Flay at KOHLS, and eventually US FOODS. Talking with chefs across the US, paying attention to what they were doing in BOH and at home, combined with my best friend’s dad getting cancer, I merged the culinary world with cannabis and launched Kitchen Toke Media. The first and only media company dedicated to culinary cannabis for health and wellness. We now create culinary cannabis content for Food & Wine Media. It’s pretty amazing when you can see mainstream media pay attention to the health benefits of this amazing plant and consider the health of it over the stigma of getting high. We are about being healthy, NOT high. And as mentioned above that’s when I noticed people using this plant and its oils in junk food. So I then partnered with the most advanced research and technology team in Israel, Bee Fuse Technology to bring to market the first honey in the world infused with CBD/hemp by honeybees. It’s amazing what nature can do!

I’m a health-focused person. I’m really excited about all the amazing CPG functional food products that are hitting the market, Red Belly Honey fits right in. As a creative, I still do work for US FOODS and functional foods is something we reported on over a year ago (before the pandemic) we knew the trend was coming, and I think the pandemic sped it up. You’ll begin to see immune-base food and menu items across the US. Chefs have always known what these ingredients can do, but I think you’ll start to see them in more creative ways and tied into some of the most basic bar foods as well and now that consumers are paying attention, they’ll notice it too.

Photo by Eva Kolenko.

Tock: In addition to Red Belly Honey, you run Kitchen Toke, a media brand focused on cannabis health and wellness. What’s the biggest misconception about cannabis?

Rivera: The biggest misconception about cannabis is that you will be high when you consume it. Nothing is further from the truth. There are hundreds of compounds and of all of them, the only one that makes you high, that’s THC. It also has many health, pain, and anxiety benefits, and even when it’s consumed at levels 0.3% or less, it still won’t make a person high. It’s like saying any person in the world who consumes one beer is drunk. That’s simply not true. The politics and news of the ’80s poisoned the perception even further. Kitchen Toke is focused on sourced based, fact-based information. We need this more than ever in the cannabis industry. Take Red Belly Honey…there are 36 different cannabinoids in there to help fight pain, anxiety, inflammation, and to help people get better sleep…none of these cannabinoids will get you high. So you can probably understand how much is needed in identifying these compounds, how our body receives them and why it’s important. I love to talk about it…I’m amazed at what our bodies need and can do.

Rivera has become a go-to for culinary cannabis.

Tock: What does your average day look like?

Rivera: That’s funny…nothing about running a startup is an average day. As a creative director, you can make plans all day and nothing goes exactly as planned you always have to be ready for a curveball, make decisions, be confident in them and move on. The same is true in running a startup. I make plans, but the curveballs come faster and more frequently. You have to keep moving, pivot, and rethink all the time and budgets are always a priority. For example, I got late notice yesterday at 4 p.m. that 340 kilos of our honey would be picked up and taken to a co-packer and I needed to get it on pallets, wrapped, and ready…so now I’m working remotely waiting for the truck to come after prepping at 7 a.m. to make it happen. But that’s okay because the last-minute notice was someone else’s cancellation and I get to save money because I’m ready.

“You have to keep moving, pivot, and rethink all the time.”

Tock: Your bio mentions leveling the playing field for underrepresented minorities. Can you tell us more about this mission and why it might be personal for you?

Rivera: I’ll state the obvious. I’m a female minority founder in an unregulated industry. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and that’s saying a lot considering I grew up in a very broken home, a single mother working two jobs to raise three children. I had no one guiding me toward college education let alone helping me prepare for it. I didn’t even think it was an option. I had zero mentors to show me the importance of school or what life would be like when I was finished with high school. My mother was overwhelmed just getting by and my job as her kid was to stay out of trouble and help her around the house. By age of ten, I was often left with the responsibility of babysitting my younger brother. The odds were stacked against me. I became financially independent by 18, held three jobs to get through college, started my career six months before earning my BA, and went on to get earn a master’s degree. I was focused. I still am. And yet, in many instances, I still feel the level of scrutiny that’s only reserved for women and minorities. I beat the odds of my background and I’m already beating the odds in my startups, and I’ll continue to do so because my upbringing built me for this. And this is why it’s personal.

I can’t wait to be in a position to give back. I want to be an example for other 10-year-old girls who might find themselves in environments like the one I grew up in. But I can’t do everything right now, the best thing I can do is focus so I can be in a better position and have more to give and help later. I want to talk to kids, teach them to believe in themselves. If I could tell my 10-year old self one thing, I’d tell her ‘don’t worry, I’ll take care of you, you can count on me.’

There are over 100 compounds found in cannabis.

“I’ll state the obvious. I’m a female minority founder in an unregulated industry.”

Tock: Favorite way to enjoy Red Belly Honey?

Rivera: On and in everything. I’m running a marathon called life as a startup founder. I need to keep stress and inflammation down. I can’t afford to not take care of myself. I work out, I eat healthily and the Red Belly Honey (thankfully) is the only thing that helps me get eight full hours of sleep. The CBD/hemp in our honey helps me calm down at night, helps my brain stop racing, and helps me get very deep relaxing eight straight uninterrupted hours of sleep. I can’t imagine doing what I’m doing without sleep, I’d be an absolute mess.

Order Red Belly Honey

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