The Fight For Food: A Look At The Future Of Food Deserts
“Why are 70 million people still on food stamps? Still waiting in food pantry lines while these big organizations (Feeding America) are still getting billions of dollars? Maybe there’s a way to attack this problem like a business. Something that doesn’t look to solve food insecurity, but something that creates food security instead.” - Cole Riley, Founder & CEO, Wellfare
THE FIGHT FOR FOOD: A LOOK AT THE FUTURE OF FOOD DESERTS
Our food deserts blog series has been eye opening…to say the least. As we get ready to dive into our third installment, let's look back at what we’ve covered so far.
Our first post on this topic gave a general overview of food deserts which are defined as a geographical area that lacks convenient, affordable, healthy foods. The USDA considers a food desert an area with “no ready access to a store with fresh and nutritious options within one mile”. In rural America, the USDA defines a food desert as being 10 miles or more from the nearest market. The North American Industry Classification System places small corner grocery stores, the ones that sell slushies and packaged food, in the same category as grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods. While a specific geographical area may not be officially designated as a food desert, it may only have a 7-11 or dollar store, thus adding to the overall problem of food insecurity for its residents.
Our second installment of the series talked about Dollar Stores and their very real and very direct connection to the proliferation of food deserts across the United States. The bottom line is that when Dollar Stores move into a community, they drive out local grocery stores. With their higher margins and lower priced packaged foods, Dollar Stores make it difficult for any traditional grocery stores to stay in business. And while Dollar Stores do sell food, they are severely lacking in healthy food. Most of their selection includes non-perishable items like cereal and Hamburger Helper. They are not selling many better-for-you packaged food options or fruits and vegetables, and rarely sell any form of fresh meat or protein.
Between these two posts, we’ve looked at some somber statistics. We have both a food insecurity and a food waste problem in the United States. Surplus healthy food exists and is available but it's not easily accessible or affordable. So, what can be done about it? After decades of organizations trying to fix our broken food system with expected and unimaginative solutions, two founders in New York are building mission-driven social enterprises to tackle these issues in a new way. We sat down with Cole Riley of Wellfare and Dan Glickberg of Dan Glickberg Foods and found hope for the future of food security in America.
“Food insecurity in the United States should not exist.” Cole Riley, Founder & CEO, Wellfare
Born out of a need during the early days of the Pandemic, Wellfare is the brainchild of Cole Riley. In the later part of 2019 and early 2020, Cole had been working on Founders Market, an e-commerce marketplace for better-for-you brands. And then March of 2020 happened. Everything paused, and our world stood still amidst chaos. In NYC the hospitals were filling up. Medical workers were overwhelmed and as pretty much everything was shutting down, food was becoming hard to find in hospitals. Food service in the cafeterias disappeared, vending machines were sitting empty, and while a few restaurants stepped up to feed the workers, finding a bottle of water or a snack was becoming impossible. It was at this time that Cole put Founders Market on hold, utilized his contacts in food warehousing and trucking, leveraged his brand connections, and launched a campaign called Founders Give which began streamlining donated packaged food. Founders Give was a 10 week campaign that became the largest private relief effort during that time.
This experience led to a big revelation for Cole – that food and beverage brands face barriers to donating product to communities in need. So when the food shortage at hospitals began to lessen in June 2020, Cole decided to leverage the program’s momentum to build a new type of nonprofit focused on getting excess food to the people who need it most, Wellfare. The Better Box from Wellfare is a free monthly subscription box for qualified households in New York City. The box is filled with premium, functional, and nutritious packaged groceries. These are what we are calling “better-for-you” foods. Each Better Box includes over $200 worth of low-sugar, low-salt, and low-fat products like plant-based milk, bars, seltzers and protein powders – all donated from Wellfare’s growing roster of brand partners and founders brought together through Founders Give during the pandemic.
“Brands do not want to waste food. Wellfare is a no brainer for brands.” - Cole Riley, Founder & CEO, Wellfare
In talking about the benefits of Wellfare, Cole shares, “One of the biggest misnomers in NY food insecurity is that there aren’t vegetables anywhere. It is not a food desert problem, it is a food swamp problem. You go into poor neighborhoods and there are overwhelming amounts of high sugar, high fat, and high salt products on the shelves and in the fast food chains. There is a lack of any type of packaged better-for-you alternative. And if there is a shelf of better-for-you products, they’re way too expensive. If there even is a shelf..”
Food pantries can be described as archaic. Feeding America, founded in 1979, is a nationwide network of food banks and food pantries. And while a lot has changed since 1979, the operating structure of the majority of food banks has not. Food banks offer the staples - tomatoes, lettuce, onions, canned soup, canned beans, and pasta. They do not offer much in the way of packaged goods. And if they do, it's from big name brands and is loaded with sugar, fat, and salt. You won’t find the better-for-you products from emerging brands in a food bank, but what you will find are people waiting in long lines for hours during the workday. “Food pantries are asking people with the least amount of time on their calendar to wait in line for 3 hours to get whatever food is available that day.” - Cole Riley. For a long time, the services provided by Feeding America have been some of the only options in this country for those who are facing food insecurity.
“Feeding America should be the largest grocery store in the country. But they’re just some office in Chicago.” - Cole Riley
New brands, old brands, and even the most robust and efficient big brands create excess food. Packaged food and beverage brands overproduce because they need a guaranteed consistent supply and must be ready for growth and expansion at a moment’s notice. Due to “best by” and “sell by” dates, a lot of products with under six months of shelf life left aren’t accepted into traditional retailers. But the reality is that this rejected food still has plenty of life left in it. So where does this food go? Unfortunately, a lot of it gets thrown away. Did that just make you cringe? You’re not alone. No one involved in this process wants edible food to end up in a landfill. The brands certainly don’t. Because of the nature of independently operated food banks, it's incredibly difficult for a brand to connect with a food pantry to donate its excess food. That’s why Cole Riley is utilizing his connections in the industry to get this excess food into the hands of the people who need it without utilizing the status quo of the old model.
“Food pantries are a network of network of networks. There is a corporate office for a big network of independently operated food banks, which each have their own set of independently operated food pantries and soup kitchens. When you have a model where everyone is on their own, fundraising on their own, procuring products on their own, I don’t see how you can pivot, scale, change, or do anything that’s substantial. Feeding America should be the largest grocery store in the country. But they’re just some office in Chicago.” - Cole Riley.
Wellfare currently has 1200 families in NYC signed up to receive their free Better Box full of nutritious groceries every month. While obviously wanting to scale, Cole is also looking to provide more variety and curation to the boxes, as well as more box size options for the subscriptions. But what’s the future hold for Wellfare? “The long term vision is to become a retailer in these neighborhoods and sell these types of products at variable prices based on a customer's purchasing power. This would be a hybrid - free food, affordable food, and full priced food - retailer that's focused on this customer base and looking to disrupt the status quo of existing dollar stores and low cost grocers that have persisted. A great experience at prices people can afford with products people want.”
“I’m not interested in collaborating with these existing players because, in time, we want to replace them all.“ - Cole Riley
“We don’t know which solution is the right one. And there are probably several different solutions that will work, but progress is that you have a number of extremely bright individuals who are trying to solve this problem.” - Dan Glickberg, Dan Glickberg Food
Dan Glickberg was involved in the grocery business before he was even born. As a 4th generation grocer, his family has been running grocery stores for over 100 years, and Dan himself worked for the family business in New York until moving into venture capital, consulting, and media in the food industry. He even had a stint as a shark on The Food Network's version of Shark Tank, Food Fortunes. After leaving the family business, he always knew he’d get back into grocery but he was looking for ways to mentor and give back. When the pandemic began in 2020, Dan knew how hard it would be for the smalltown grocers who were working on the frontlines in their towns. Not only were they putting their lives at risk, but with shutdowns and logistical problems, they were struggling to serve their customers. So, he decided to start cold calling small town grocery stores.
While a few were initially skeptical of the chance connection, most grocers were grateful to hear from someone who knew what they were going through. Dan connected with A.J. Johnson, founder and CEO of Oasis Fresh Market Grocery Stores in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Oasis was not only the first grocery store to open in Tulsa, a known food desert, in nearly 15 years, but it was the first black-owned grocery store in that city in decades. When Dan first reached out, A.J. had been open for a few months and wanted help in running his store. The two set up once a week calls to discuss everything from business to management to customer interactions. Six weeks after the connection, A.J.’s store became profitable. Inspired by the impact A.J. was having in his community, Dan began reaching out to other grocers who were opening stores in food deserts.
“Some entrepreneurs view a solution on a localized basis and are trying to fix this by opening a grocery store in their local town. I’m fortunate enough to be able to talk with and work with a number of individuals who are doing that.” - Dan Glickberg
Entrepreneurs opening up grocery stores in food deserts are faced with two main hurdles. The first is usually a lack of experience in the industry. They are members of the community they seek to serve, but they are trying to learn on the fly and are operating in areas where grocery stores have failed in the past. The margins in grocery are so low, 1 to 3%, and especially in food deserts, that entrepreneurs have little room for error while navigating a massive learning curve to get their business up and running.
The second hurdle a grocer in a food desert must overcome is an issue of size. Operating with a smaller footprint than traditional stores means they have less room for inventory. This limits their ability to buy large quantities of goods and secure lower prices. They need to be able to offer their goods to their customers at an affordable price, but they also need to make a profit and have sustainable margins. The issue of scale also affects distribution and logistics. Some of these stores are in remote areas and simply getting products to them is extremely difficult.
Dan has begun working on a documentary with Ish Entertainment that will begin shooting this fall. The film will focus on the enormous positive impacts these entrepreneurs are having through the work they’re doing in their communities. Dan’s goal for the documentary? To get the word out about solutions to food deserts and food insecurity and to create awareness around the movement. “I love working with these people and I love helping people. I believe I’m surrounding myself with the right people in the industry that will have the ability to create something with the biggest impact - eliminating food deserts and helping food insecurity. By utilizing media I hope that we can shine a light on the distribution problem. We can try to work through it together and try to figure out how to get food products to remote areas that desperately want to get food to the people that need it.” - Dan Glickberg
“I look at problems or issues that arise as opportunities.“
While Dan is working to coordinate people in the private sector to help, he doesn’t deny that the public sector also desperately wants to help. Commonly proposed solutions to food deserts are tax incentives and other federal aid provided to entrepreneurs who are opening grocery stores. But when it comes to the government, bureaucracy and red tape are no strangers. As a small town independent grocer trying to succeed with a new business, having the time or wherewithal to work within the confines of big government to access incentivized funds is not easy.
Dan’s hope is that media can be used to shine a light on the existence of this red tape and create awareness that there is a movement happening. “Maybe we don’t just allocate funds that are supposed to go to entrepreneurs who are trying to solve the food desert problem in our country, but also get the right people around the problem. Not just to let the entrepreneurs have access to the funds, but to get the funds to the entrepreneurs. It's not really anybody's fault, it's just part of the system. The system is so large it's easy to get lost in it.”
“If the free market were going to solve the food desert problem, it would have already.”
The goal is that both the private sector and the government will be able to reach out and help the people who are doing the invaluable work for their communities.
“This is going to take a village and I really hope we can make this a sustainable project that not only helps the 17.5 million people who are living in food deserts, but also creates a sustainable and evergreen system where we create affordable access to fresh foods and combat the 50 million Americans who are food insecure.”
The good news is that there is hope for the future of food insecurity in America. And there are some really smart and driven people at the helm of this movement. From subscription grocery boxes, tiered pricing grocery stores, mentorship for grocers in food deserts, and media to bring greater public and government awareness, we have a multitude of tools to help the people living in food deserts with boots on the ground doing the work. Despite the life disrupting scale of the 2020 pandemic, there were people looking beyond the disruption to their own lives and strategizing how they could help others. The fact that these people have created a very tangible weapon in the fight for food security is inspiring.
“There is a movement in this country trying to eliminate food deserts. There are a lot of people – whether doing it on a small scale in their individual towns where they live, or on a larger scale trying to eliminate food deserts across this country – there are people working day in and day out trying to solve this problem. That should give everyone out there a lot of hope.” - Dan Glickberg, Dan Glickberg Food
Are you a brand or someone else in the industry looking to get involved in this cause? You can reach out to Cole Riley and Dan Glickberg, they welcome your thoughts and contribution.