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, set forth an action plan to end food insecurity and reduce diet-related diseases in America by 2030. Cole Riley, the founder and chief executive officer of New York nonprofit Wellfare, said many of the solutions discussed during the event missed the mark.
A 501(c)(3), Wellfare delivers premium packaged snacks, beverages and pantry staples to local low-income communities through a free subscription box program. The organization partners with dozens of consumer brands, distributors and retailers that provide funding or donate market-ready, liquidated or excess inventory. Partners include Amazon, The Coca-Cola Foundation, Dunkin’ Joy In Childhood Foundation, Nestle and Dole, alongside small specialty brands such as Mmmly, GoodSam and tbh.
“Our focus is still strictly on being an incredible destination for donated food that can make an incredible impact … and building this collective of companies that make better-for-you products and can see the opportunity here to reach a new health-conscious consumer,” Mr. Riley said. “There’s so much focus on the Whole Foods and Erewhon and Sprouts customer, and there really isn’t any focus on the folks living in public housing and food-insecure communities because they are just out of the price range. What we’re trying to do is create and capture that customer and elevate that customer because they want better-for-you products and need it more than anybody in the country.”
Mr. Riley attended the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health and participated in conversations ahead of the event, submitting ideas for improving food access and affordability. One in 10 US households last year had limited access to food due to lack of money or other resources, according to the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture.
“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, maybe reorganizing these federal agencies that oversee all these big food insecurity programs,” Mr. Riley said.
The conference addressed several issues affecting the food industry, including front-of-package labeling, integrating nutrition and health, supporting physical activity and enhancing nutrition and food security research. Investing in school meals and the Supplemental Nutrition Association Program (SNAP) also was covered.
In an interview, Mr. Riley discussed the conference and the shortcomings of existing strategies to solve food insecurity in America.
Food Entrepreneur: Where do you see opportunities to address hunger at the federal level?
Cole Riley: I think SNAP is really messy. It’s a federal program that’s administered by each of the states individually. There’s a lot of misinformation on the ground. Signing up and managing an account is very difficult. If you cross state lines, it’s very difficult. I think it should be completely federalized... Not having the states involved is a big thing.
I think there needs to be product standards in what you can and cannot buy. And SNAP really has the loosest standards. You can’t buy hot meals with your EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card… But you can buy sugary drinks and chips, and when you go into the poorest neighborhoods where most folks are on SNAP, those are the only options available. The link between food insecurity and obesity is super obvious when you see it that way.
Food insecurity, SNAP, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), school lunches, there’s a bunch of different programs in the country that are spread out over 15, 16 different federal agencies. The FDA does some stuff, the USDA does some stuff, the Department of Education… it’s all spread out. There needs to be one office that manages everything, including SNAP and WIC, and then nutrition standards, nutrition labels; everything should be under one new federal agency of health and nutrition, or whatever it would be called.
What are your thoughts on the solutions unveiled at the conference?
Mr. Riley: A lot of the conversation was about building on top of the foundation we already have. And in my view … 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 a sustainable solution in mind. It was really just small tweaks to what already exists, and that’s not the transformative type of change that I thought this conference would promise and that I know we could develop. Something transformative where you do throw out 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 for ending food insecurity and long-term vision for Wellfare?
Mr. Riley: The long-term vision is to become the largest grocery retailer in the country with a specific focus on the communities that are relying on corner stores and low-cost grocers where junk food is more prevalent. We want to compete with independent bodegas, independent convenient stores, low-cost grocers, Dollar Generals, and become a Whole Foods type grocer with prices people can afford, while also folding in a free food channel, like what we’re doing today with our Better Box program that competes with and ultimately replaces food pantries.
It would be a single destination where families can receive free food, affordable food and full-price food, where they can spend SNAP EBT and WIC, where they get an elevated customer experience, product standards that you would expect from the best natural food grocers, and overall being practical on nutrition.
That’s what we do today with our focus on packaged food. Instead of another box of lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, which are good in their own right, we’re talking about healthy alternatives to what’s in the communities, the neighborhoods. So a healthier drink, a healthier snack, a healthier packaged food to prepare for dinner. That practical approach is fresh and new in this food insecurity space.
The sustainable solution, the long-term solution, is finding a creative way to get good food at affordable prices, and the only way that I believe we can do that is as a nonprofit, as a 501(c)(3), where you can get as creative as you possibly can with pricing on the shelf.
I am laser focused on building an organization that for the short term is focused on free food and building out an incredible experience of free food, but long term does become a retailer because that’s the only way we can solve this problem is as a retailer. You can’t have folks who are living paycheck to paycheck relying on for-profit retailers. The worst food is going to be what’s in reach.
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 off your floor, and you avoid that big recycling fee and disposal fee to toss that stuff. There’s a lot more transparency to the impact you’re having and the marketing elements, to be able to amplify us but also to be able to amplify donating product.
A lot of entrepreneurs talk about wanting to democratize access to healthy foods. This seems like a way to do that.
Mr. Riley: I’m screaming from the rooftops, “This is a health-conscious consumer,” and this is someone who is generationally diabetic. Grandma’s diabetic, they’re diabetic, they’re looking at their daughter holding another soda, and they can see the trend continuing. And they demand low-sugar, low-salt, low-fat options. They demand functionality in their products.
For example, one of the most popular product categories that we deliver from a variety of different brands is protein powder. Some of the brands we’re delivering that sell $50 tubs of mushroom protein powder, those brands would never look at this customer base as an ideal customer because obviously they’re out of the price point, but you’d just never imagine a 75-year-old grandma living in public housing making mushroom protein powder a 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 that talk about democratizing wellness, there’s only so much they can do… What does that mean, democratizing? Donating a few times? So that’s why I see the opportunity, I see the customer that wants these products, I see the companies that have this mission, and there needs to be someone in the middle who can play games with the money and the pricing on the shelf. And as a nonprofit we can drive incredible revenue, but we can be subsidized by the largest foundations, the largest city, state and federal government agencies that can make individual stores a reality, so if we’re in one neighborhood and we’re losing $10,000 a month on the shelf, that can be subsidized. And that’s what needs to happen, is some creative middleman between the great brands and the customers who want these products.
Why hasn’t this been done before?
Mr. Riley: These large, dinosaur nonprofits that have been in this space for 40, 50 years don’t seem up to task to actually solve the problem. You don’t see Feeding America out there talking about retail when they do have 200 food banks, they do have partnerships with the major food companies, they do have the funding and the government support. Why aren’t they talking about retail at all? Why isn’t Feeding America the largest grocery store in the country?
Not seeing innovation come out of the nonprofit space is what fuels me to try to build something new in a new lane because we know the government is going to be slow, and we know private sector has their hands tied in how much change they can bring. That’s why we’re a 501(c)(3). I think it’s the most untapped vehicle for change.