Wholesome Wave, the nonprofit behind the country’s largest prescription program for fruits and vegetables, just awarded $210,000 in grants for the sort of collaboration that doesn’t happen often in the philanthropy world: They’re financing nine partners, from farmers markets to community nonprofits and grocers to take their basic business model and the underlying lessons and technology that’s made it a success, and hopefully expand it.
Since it’s inception in 2007, Wholesome Wave has worked to provide people without healthy food choices more access to fresh produce in one of two ways. First, it subsidizes farmers markets and stores to create matching programs for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) which may double the value of government-provided food stamps with a secondary currency–coupons, points or vouchers–that can only be spent on fruits and vegetables. Second, it empowers community health groups and public hospitals who identify patients at risk of diet-related disease, like obesity, hypertension or type-2 diabetes. To encourage healthier eating habits, those practitioners can then write prescriptions for free produce for those people.
The grants are funded by two of Wholesome Foods existing donors, Target and the Sampson Foundation. Recipients range from a mobile farmers market that sets up in different areas of Concord, California, to a corner store offering fresh produce and on-the-job training for at-risk kids in the community to learn more about meal prep, by turning B-grade produce into healthful snacks. The groups are offering government-sponsored bonus subsidies, which allow customers to receive either matching or deeply discounted benefits on fresh produce, and variants of the food prescription program.
“What we’ve been doing is the Johnny Appleseed approach with technical assistance and seed funding,” says Founder and CEO Michel Nischan. “The thing that everyone aligns on, that puts under one umbrella, is data collection,” he adds.
Each grant recipient is a member of Wholesome Wave’s National Nutritional Incentive Network, which is backed by a several million dollar grant from the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. The goal is to expand the concept more widely with partners who might already know how to best serve their communities, while at the same time providing coaching and a unified way to track spending, consumption, and consumer satisfaction and health benefits that to show the program itself is working. “All that data comes into our hopper so we can continue to make the big business case for our programs,” Nischan says.
It all stems from a basic consumer conundrum: Processed food has become ever cheaper while the fresh stuff remains relatively pricey. “The majority of people struggling with food insecurity live at an income level that keeps them from making healthy food choices,” says Nischan, who is a multiple James Beard award-winning chef and became passionate about nutritional equality after two of his children were diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.
To manage those diagnoses, Nischan’s entire family vowed to adopt more healthful eating habits. He incorporated similar shifts on his menus. “I made the choice that I wasn’t able to feed my customers something that I couldn’t feed my family,” he says. But he was bothered that many people in far tougher situations didn’t have such a choice–especially because another variation of diabetes (type-2) is entirely preventable if you make dietary changes early enough. That seemed impossible in low-income areas. “There wasn’t anything for a family of four that could only spend two dollars on dinner tonight,” he says.
There is now. And, so far, it’s working. Wholesome Wave’s network has partners at 700 locations in 46 states with ties to 200 community-based nonprofits. Its data tracking has shown that with a just a small increase in daily fruit and vegetable consumption roughly 48% of those enrolled can reduce their BMI in 14 to 28 weeks. Still, Wholesome Wave only reaches about a half million people across the country. Their network partners double that, but at least 42 million in the country are considered food insecure, according to Feeding America.
That’s where the group’s data tracking features come in. “The sustainability play is to use things like the incentive program to prove demand, so these larger scale businesses can shift their model in a way that shift the demand,” Nischan says. For employers, having healthier workers means less sick time and lost productivity. It could mean lower insurance premiums as people don’t need as many expensive medical procedures.
Eventually, Nischan hopes that business owners may be more proactive, offering their own healthy-eating incentives, in addition to any more federal subsidies that might boost such programs. Such programs help local farmers too, by increasing the demand for their crops. Some of the recently endowed partners–all of whom are using slightly different business models–may yield more lessons. You can read the full list here. “We are constantly trying to figure out how do we turn this into a business and transition so we lighten the load on the community,” Nischan says.