Closing the Food Gap

There is no single solution that will solve the complex crisis of hunger. In a country defined by its abundance and prosperity, more than 40 million people39 across the United States live at or below the poverty line40 and rely on SNAP to buy groceries. The food gap41 is a term researchers use to describe how and why42 it’s systematically more difficult for people living in poverty to purchase nutritious foods than it is for those in higher income groups.

For the past decade, nonprofit organizations have been partnering with the USDA and grocers to leverage SNAP data, thereby ensuring program participants. Programs such as Wholesome Wave’s “Doubling SNAP” and Fair Food Network’s “Double Up Food Bucks” use data collected from supermarket loyalty cards and SNAP EBT benefit cards to double the amount of fresh produce users can purchase at participating stores and markets.

In 2007, seven years before the Farm Bill integrated incentives for healthy food purchases into its food assistance program, Michel Nischan founded his own organization to address food insecurity: Wholesome Wave. Nischan wanted to expand access to fresh produce in communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. In communities across the country, Wholesome Wave began doubling SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and grocery stores. At the Saturday market in City Heights, San Diego, for example, Somali refugees are growing native pumpkin leaves and lablab beans and selling them to their community for deep discounts through the program.

Building on these successes, Wholesome Wave has launched a card-based payment platform that supports an initiative called Wholesome Rx. This fruit and vegetable prescription program is administered at participating health clinics and used by Medicaid patients who want to eat more fruits and veggies. The platform captures the entire shopping trip and offers incentives for making healthy food purchases beyond produce (hint: Ezekiel is ranked higher than Wonder Bread). It also utilizes a machine learning algorithm that aggregates data from supermarket loyalty cards to generate coupons for nutritious foods and personalized diet recommendations.

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Michel Nischan

“We had farmers that were taking their usual stuff—like fava beans, heirloom potatoes, kale—to the market and then learning about Tayoba or Puerto Rican oregano or bitter melon or collard greens”

Nischan has a personal connection to this work: He first realized the need to expand access to these fresh fruits and vegetables when his son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at just five-years-old. Nischan changed his family’s food strategy at home for his son and eventually in his restaurants. But he soon learned that the majority of Americans living with the disease didn’t have access to filling and nutritious ingredients for healthy meals.

Having been raised by farmers, Nischan began innovating ways to expand access to fresh produce long before food delivery apps and diet tracking platforms came along. Instead of developing apps, Wholesome Wave developed partnerships with grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and the government to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to those who simply didn’t have access to markets with high quality produce or couldn’t afford fresh foods.

At the time, few farmers’ markets had the necessary technology to accept food stamps. In 2006, there were roughly 4,000 farmers’ markets and less than 200 were able to accept SNAP benefits. The Wholesome Wave team advocated for free EBT machines to accept them and expanded on a low-tech token system as a workaround to provide produce incentives. Wholesome Wave extended this rudimentary system into multiple states, thereby reaching more ethnically diverse shoppers as well. Doing so proved there was real demand for a variety of produce, which then led farmers to adapt to the local community’s needs.

When one market in Amherst, Massachusetts saw an influx of Khmer and Brazilian shoppers, farmers from that region began selling their produce as well. “We had farmers that were taking their usual stuff—like fava beans, heirloom potatoes, kale—to the market and then learning about Tayoba or Puerto Rican oregano or bitter melon or collard greens. And the farmers started planting it,” Nischan says.

Nischan’s vision still outpaces the available technology that would support it. But over the past few years, Wholesome Wave’s work has been greatly aided by technologies like their new payment platform, which can score supermarket grocery carts using machine learning and let shoppers know via email about healthier options. He sees a future where Medicaid will code fruits and vegetables as reimbursable, thereby helping to reduce the $1.4 trillion in annual treatment costs for diet-related diseases.

By partnering with grocery store loyalty card programs to sync their point of sale systems with rewards for buying fresh produce, the program is improving health outcomes for individuals and their communities.44 Healthy eating incentives also grow the demand for produce from regional farmers, increase profit margins for farmers’ markets and grocery stores, and improve overall health outcomes.45 Holly Parker, Senior Director of Programs at Fair Food Network, notes that “with such significant public and private investments fueling SNAP incentives, it is truly imperative that we have affordable, accessible technology to process incentives at scale in order to bring more fresh, healthy food to low income families while supporting farmers.”

Machine learning should be used to make that happen, just as it being used to build the food banks of the future. The Fed40 app is a new spin on the home meal kit craze that’s swept the nation—but this one is geared towards food insecure families. By filling out a simple request form, families in need can receive 40 prepackaged, nutritious meals right to their door. (Red lentil jambalaya and apple pie oats are what’s currently on the menu, though the company will offer more options soon.) The app is especially geared toward working families who might not have the time to trek out to a food bank. It’s a stopgap measure meant to help in the event of a financial crisis or when other food services are interrupted.

  1. Virginia Eubanks, Automated Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
  2. USDA Food and Nutrition Service, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Tables,” Fns.Usda.gov, September 7, 2018.
  3. CBPP, “A quick guide to SNAP eligibility and benefits,” Cbpp.org, February 7, 2018.
  4. Siri Diaz-Granados, “The Food Gap: Income Inequality and Disease Disparity,” HarvardPolitics.com, March 17, 2018.
  5. Gaby Galvin, “Filling the food gap,” US News & World Report, September 12, 2018.
  6. USDA, “Food security in the U.S.,” Ers.usda.gov, September 5th, 2018.
  7. Wholesome Wave, “2016 Annual Report,” 2016.
  8. Susan Blumenthal, “Poverty and obesity: Breaking the link,” HuffingtonPost.com, April 11, 2012.

Data Insecurity in the Food Supply Chain

“Marginalized groups face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through highly policed neighborhoods, enter the health-care system, or cross national borders. That data acts to reinforce their marginality when it is used to target them for suspicion and extra scrutiny. Those groups seen as undeserving are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance and the cycle begins again. It is a kind of collective red-flagging, a feedback loop of injustice.”38
—Virginia Eubanks