Nutrition news

Entrepreneurs tackle food insecurity in the United States

NEW YORK – In late September, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the first of its kind in more than half a century, presented an action plan to end food insecurity and reduce diet-related disease in America by 2030. Cole Riley, founder and chief executive of New York-based nonprofit Wellfare, said many of the solutions discussed at the event missed the mark. .

A 501(c)(3), Wellfare provides premium packaged snacks, beverages and staple foods to local low-income communities through a free subscription box program. The organization partners with dozens of consumer brands, distributors and retailers who provide funds or donate inventory ready for release, clearance or surplus. Partners include Amazon, The Coca-Cola Foundation, Dunkin’ Joy In Childhood Foundation, Nestlé and Dole, as well as smaller specialty brands such as Mmmly, GoodSam and tbh.

“Our goal is still strictly to be an incredible destination for donated foods that can have an incredible impact…and to build that collective of companies that make better products for you and can see the opportunity here to achieve a new health-conscious consumer,” said Riley. “There’s so much focus on the Whole Foods and Erewhon and Sprouts customer, and there’s really no focus on people living in social housing and food insecure communities, because they’re just out of the price range. What we’re trying to do is create and capture that customer and elevate them because they want better products for you and need them more than anyone in the country.

Mr. Riley attended the White House Hunger, Nutrition and Health Conference and participated in pre-event conversations, pitching ideas for improving food access and affordability. Last year, one in 10 US households had limited access to food due to a lack of money or other resources, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

“When the conference was announced earlier this year, there was this energy that there would be an opportunity for a new generation, a new era of social programs, perhaps by revamping these federal agencies that oversee all these major programs. food insecurity,” Riley said. said.

The conference addressed several issues affecting the food industry, including front-of-package labelling, integrating nutrition and health, supporting physical activity and improving nutrition research. and food security. Investing in school meals and the Supplemental Nutrition Association (SNAP) program were also discussed.

In an interview, Mr. Riley discussed the conference and the shortcomings of existing strategies to address food insecurity in America.

food entrepreneur: Where do you see opportunities to fight hunger at the federal level?

Cole Riley: I think SNAP is really messy. It is a federal program administered by each of the states individually. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Registering and managing an account is very difficult. If you’re crossing state lines, it’s very difficult. I think it should be completely federalized… Not having the states involved is a great thing.

I think there must be product standards in what you can and cannot buy. And SNAP really has the loosest standards. You cannot buy hot meals with your EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card… But you can buy sugary drinks and crisps, and when you go to the poorer neighborhoods where most people are on SNAP , these are the only options available. The link between food insecurity and obesity is super obvious when viewed this way.

Food insecurity, SNAP, WIC (women, infants and children), school meals, there’s a bunch of different programs around the country that are spread across 15, 16 different federal agencies. The FDA does certain things, the USDA does certain things, the Department of Education… it’s all scattered. There has to be an office that manages everything, including SNAP and WIC, then nutrition standards, nutrition labels; everything should fall under a new federal health and nutrition agency, or whatever you would call it.

What do you think of the solutions unveiled at the conference?

Mr. Riley: A lot of the conversation was about building on top of the foundations we already have. And in my opinion…the foundation is very unstable, with these programs, having to rely on private retailers to use your EBT, and just the amount of spending that has gone into these programs without necessarily having a sustainable solution in mind. They were really small tweaks to what already exists, and not the kind of transformative change that I thought this conference promised and that I know we could develop. Something transformative where you throw away a bunch of stuff and start from scratch with new agencies, new programs, and a new approach to food insecurity and nutrition.

What is your approach to ending food insecurity and your long-term vision for well-being?

Mr. Riley: The long-term vision is to become the largest grocery retailer in the country with a particular focus on communities that rely on convenience stores and low-cost grocers where junk food is more prevalent. We want to compete with independent bodegas, independent convenience stores, low-cost grocers, Dollar Generals, and become a Whole Foods type grocer with prices people can afford, while integrating a free food chain, like what we do today with our Better Box program which competes with and ultimately replaces food pantries.

It would be a one stop destination where families can get free food, affordable food and full price food, where they can spend SNAP EBT and WIC, where they get high customer experience, product standards you expect from the best natural food grocers, and overall be practical about nutrition.

That’s what we’re doing today by focusing on packaged foods. Instead of another box of lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, which are good on their own, we’re talking about healthy alternatives to what’s in communities, neighborhoods. So a healthier drink, a healthier snack, a healthier packaged food to prepare for dinner. This practical approach is fresh and new in this food insecure space.

The lasting solution, the long-term solution, is to find a creative way to get good food at affordable prices, and the only way I think we can do that is as a nonprofit , as a 501(c)(3), where you can be as creative as possible with off-the-shelf pricing.

I’m focused on building an organization that in the short term is focused on free food and creating an amazing free food experience, but in the long term I become a retailer because it’s the only way to solve this problem as a retailer. You can’t have people living paycheck to paycheck relying on for-profit retailers. The worst food will be what is at hand.

How do emerging brands benefit from partnering with Wellfare?

Mr. Riley: With us, you get the enhanced tax deduction, you get the product into people’s hands and get your floor off, and you avoid those high recycling and disposal fees to throw those things away. There’s a lot more transparency about the impact you’re having and the marketing elements, to be able to amplify us but also to be able to amplify product donations.

Many entrepreneurs talk about wanting to democratize access to healthy food. That seems like one way to do it.

Mr. Riley: I’m shouting from the rooftops, “He’s a health-conscious consumer,” and he’s someone who’s been diabetic for generations. Grandma is diabetic, they are diabetic, they watch their daughter hold another soda, and they can see the trend continues. And they demand options that are low in sugar, salt and fat. They demand functionality in their products.

For example, one of the most popular product categories that we ship from a variety of different brands is protein powder. Some of the brands we ship that sell $50 tubs of mushroom protein powder, those brands would never consider that customer base as an ideal customer because obviously they’re overpriced, but you would never imagine a 75 A grand -mother of 1 year living in social housing making mushroom protein powder part of her daily routine. And that’s what we want to develop, to open that up.

There are obviously price constraints, and that’s why all these brands and restaurants talking about democratizing well-being, they can’t do much… What does democratizing mean? ? Give multiple times? That’s why I see the opportunity, I see the customer who wants these products, I see the companies who have this mission, and there has to be someone in the middle who can play games with the money and the price on the shelf. And as a nonprofit, we can generate incredible revenue, but we can be funded by the biggest foundations, the biggest city, state, and federal government agencies that can make individual stores a reality, so if we’re in a neighborhood and we’re losing $10,000 a month on the shelf, which can be subsidized. And that’s what needs to happen, it’s a creative middleman between the big brands and the customers who want these products.

Why hasn’t this been done before?

Mr. Riley: These big dinosaur nonprofits that have been in this space for 40, 50 years don’t seem up to the job of solving the problem. You don’t see Feeding America talking about retail when they have 200 food banks, they have partnerships with major food companies, they have government funding and support. Why don’t they talk about retail at all? Why isn’t Feeding America the largest grocery store in the country?

Not seeing innovation coming out of the nonprofit space is what drives me to try to build something new in a new way because we know government is going to be slow, and we know the sector private has its hands tied as to how much change it can bring about. This is why we are a 501(c)(3). I think it’s the most untapped vector of change.