Op-Ed

Throwing Food at Hunger Won’t Help Americans Eat Better: Philanthropy Needs to Consider a New Approach

Oct 18, 2022
Two women at food pantry

The connection between healthy eating and overall health is undeniable. One in two Americans suffers from chronic illnesses that are largely linked to poor diets, including diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. A whopping 80 percent of government health-care spending goes toward these preventable diseases — a point driven home during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September.

This month, a group of scientists raised the alarm that the United States needs to fix its broken food system to halt the spread of Type 2 diabetes, which now affects one in seven Americans — up from one in 20 in the 1970s. Black people in this country are 77 percent more likely to get diabetes and two times more likely to die from it.

The message is clear: If the nation is serious about making public health a priority, then government, philanthropic, and business leaders need to commit more resources to growing, distributing, selling, and encouraging the consumption of a lot more vegetables, fruit, and beans — and discouraging the over-consumption of highly processed, sugary products.

Coming out of last month’s conference, the Biden administration is taking steps in the right direction. Among other things, it is pushing to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, proposing that nutrition labels be moved to the front of packages, and working with Congress to test a program that would allow Medicare coverage of medically tailored meals. All these efforts are important, but insufficient.

The reality is that private business has not yet found a way to make money selling healthy food in underserved communities. Walmart made a run at building stores in low-income neighborhoods, only to back out. Grocery delivery services such as Amazon Fresh remain unavailable in many marginalized areas. Yet we know that without access to good food, people who live in these communities will remain unhealthy.

To help break this cycle, philanthropy needs to break away from old and ineffective funding patterns. Rather than simply throwing food at the problem, grant makers need to focus more on testing new approaches, collecting data, learning about what works, and sharing the knowledge.

Too often hunger programs go away when the funding — along with the food — disappears, as has been the case with hundreds of local and federal food-distribution efforts. Who, after all, can fund free food forever? Consequently, when the programs end, little is left to build on.

The food business has some of the tightest margins of any industry. Because of that, food producers and grocery-store chains are reluctant to take chances on new ways of doing business. Fortunately, philanthropy can take such risks. Foundations can provide the initial funding, help drive innovation, and bankroll research that proves healthy, affordable produce is a financial winner. Here’s how:

Fund better data. Companies often need market research prior to moving into a new product line or a new region. But the lack of food options in underserved communities means little such data is available. In response, grant makers can design and fund evaluations that double as powerful market research for private businesses. For example, when food is distributed on an emergency basis, data can be collected on dietary preferences and willingness to pay for fruit and vegetables — information that can then be used and shared with food retailers.

The organization I lead, the Partnership for a Healthier America, took such an approach when we partnered with food service supplier Genuine Foods to develop convenient plant-focused meal kits that were distributed in partnership with former first lady Michelle Obama. Then, in collaboration with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, we collected data about what people liked most, what they didn’t like, which recipes, spices, and produce were most appealing, and how much they would pay for such a kit. Preliminary data showed that people were open to plant-based meals, appreciated the high-quality ingredients, and liked the taste of the food.

That positioned us for the next phase — testing various venues for selling the kits, which we are now making available in schools and at the YMCA.

Facilitate partnerships between private businesses and nonprofits. Philanthropy can help bring together groups that have the power to change the eating habits of millions of people. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Heart Association have partnered with Kroger, one of the nation’s largest grocery retailers, to launch a $250 million Food Is Medicine research initiative. The program will develop evidence about the effectiveness of “food as medicine” interventions, which provide medically tailored meals and groceries to individuals. This will help build the case for wide-scale expansion of these efforts to improve health equity and reduce overall health-care costs.

Encourage innovation in healthy food delivery. Grant makers can support new approaches for reaching consumers who can’t afford fresh produce or live far from healthy food options. My organization is working with Instacart’s new health and nutrition initiative, Instacart Health, to create a tech platform that allows families living in underserved communities to purchase fruits and vegetables from grocery stores outside of their ZIP codes. Those families will get free delivery on Instacart as well as a $50 stipend every month just to purchase produce.

Instacart is also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to incorporate SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits into its online platform and launching new ways for consumers to identify healthy foods on its app.

The White House hunger conference brought much needed visibility to the effects of diet and nutrition on overall health, but the hard work of fixing America’s broken food system is just getting started. Philanthropy needs to take advantage of the momentum. That means funding more effectively and thinking bigger about how to ensure healthy food access and healthy food choices become the norm for all families.

By Nancy Roman, President and CEO, Partnership for a Healthier America
Photo by William Deshazer, The New York Times, Redux