Can feeding the hungry also be good for business? Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan has set out to prove it can.
The food bank is rolling out test projects with local companies aimed at showing providing food for those in need can have a measurable return by improving health and educational outcomes — and company bottom lines. If the pilots succeed, they could give food banks around the country a new way to bridge the hunger gap.
The first pilot is set to launch this fall with Henry Ford Health System, and Gleaners is discussing similar projects with Beaumont Health, DTE Energy Co. and Consumers Energy Co.
"We think we're solving about half of the food insecurity problem in Southeast Michigan" with Oak Park-based food rescue Forgotten Harvest, said Gleaners CEO Gerry Brisson.
The return on investment model "is a big idea … that can get us a nice chunk of the way to the rest."
And when you solve food insecurity for some households, that's all the help they need, he said. Once they're fed, people can focus on the other things they need to do to improve their life.
"If you look to solve hunger as if it's a root cause, because it is, maybe that helps people become successful," Brisson said.
Health care savings
There are just under 1.5 million "food insecure" people in Michigan, or about 15 percent of the state's population, according to Feeding America, a Chicago-based national association for food banks and food rescues. More than half of those, or 672,780, were in southeast Michigan (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties).
Through its annual Map the Meal Gap project, Feeding America estimates it would take $739.2 million to feed all of Michigan's food insecure people.
Brisson and his senior management team began brainstorming about what it would take to close the gap. They landed on a conversation about who, besides the people getting food, could benefit from providing it to them.
Health care and education were the first two things that came up. Research has shown that children can't learn when they're hungry. And adequate nutritional food can stave off many health concerns, lowering the incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes and the long-term treatment associated with them.
By extension, in the area of health care, Gleaners believes feeding the hungry can also help reduce hospital stays and admissions and improve chronic disease treatment. The costs associated with providing food are much lower than those associated with providing health care, Brisson said.
If someone needs a low-sodium, high produce diet but the only place they can shop is a nearby gas station, that may impede their ability to get healthy again, he said.
"We know how to get food to people. If we partner with (health care) around these issues … we can help them drive their costs down to the patients who need it, who are sort of Gleaners' consumers."
A pilot in development with Henry Ford could prove that.
"We already know the benefits of healthy eating but access to enough food — and the right nutrition — continues to be a challenge for so many people," said Susan Hawkins, senior vice president, population health for Henry Ford.
"We believe a program like this has the potential to make a significant impact on our patients' health and healing, and having a partner like Gleaners for this program is an ideal fit."
Henry Ford plans to launch the pilot program at several ambulatory centers beginning sometime this fall, Hawkins said. Patients who meet certain criteria will be offered an "emergency kit" of nonperishable food right at the medical center and will receive additional food shipments over the next six months.
The program will be backed by an approved study in partnership with Henry Ford's Public Health Sciences department. The study will examine things like the average readmission rate, frequency of emergency department use, and certain biomarkers like blood pressure and body mass index, she said.
"We are actively pursuing a funding source within our own health system and hope to finalize that within the next few weeks," Hawkins said.
The program builds on another initiative Henry Ford has participated in since 2013 to get more healthy food to patients, the Fresh Prescription Program. As part of this program, Henry Ford dietitians meet with patients referred by their primary care doctors, give them a prescription to "eat more fruits and vegetables," and help them set healthy eating goals. Patients "fill" their prescriptions at a participating farm stand or market and also receive nutrition counseling, cooking demonstrations and other educational support focused on healthy eating changes. That program's partners include Eastern Market Corp., Detroit Food Policy Council, Community Health and Social Services Center Inc., Covenant Community Care, Mercy Primary Care Center and others.
While the health care model Gleaners is developing would offer food at no charge to low-income patients, models in development with utility companies would provide low-cost food to the companies' customers, Brisson said.
The first tradeoff some people make when they are short money is to skip paying for utilities to buy food.
DTE Energy Co. is already investing in programs to help low-income people pay their bills, Brisson said.
If the company were to help subsidize the purchase of low-cost, healthy food for consumers, they may be able to pay their bills each month and avoid going into debt, he said.
A contribution from the company would fund Gleaners' purchase of food at below-market costs. The food bank would then make the food available to DTE or Consumers' customers at very low costs, saving them money each month. The precise distribution method — whether home delivery or established pick-up locations — is still being worked out.
Gleaners purchased about a quarter of the 39 million pounds of food it distributed to local pantries and other hunger-relief agencies at deeply discounted rates, Brisson said.
The business integration strategies would take that concept to the next level, he said, while also capitalizing on Gleaners' distribution strengths.
"We're not trying to replace the supermarket ... (but) if we can source food (like potatoes and green beans) cheaper than what our partners can buy it, we can certainly source cheaper than what consumers can buy."
In the same way, companies employing low-wage earners struggling to make ends meet could subsidize the cost of food provided by Gleaners and offer it as a benefit to their employees.
"If you start with 300-400 people and watch what happens and start to see them succeed, maybe we can (prove) if we take hunger off the table, that's all they need ... they'll actually get to the next point," Brisson said.
The pilots will need to be at least six months in duration in order to see the impact of taking hunger out of the equation for people. Funding for the programs would likely range from $50,000 to a couple hundred thousand dollars, which would feed thousands of people, Brisson said. And the business investments in the pilots will be just that — an investment. Tax deductions aren't a consideration when a business is getting something in return.
The new strategies will complement Gleaners' charitable role of providing food to 534 area food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other nonprofits to feed the hungry in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties.
The food bank, which is operating on a cash budget of about $20 million this year, is on track to distribute 42 million pounds of food this year, Brisson said.
A new model
Food banks are moving away from pounds per year as being the primary metric of success and beginning to focus on the economic benefit feeding the hungry can bring to the household and the community, Gleaners Chief Development Officer Ryan Hoyle said.
Some food banks in other cities are working with health systems to screen for food insecurity and to use that to advocate for SNAP increases, Brisson said.
Other food banks such as one in Boston have long worked with health care to supply food. A Boston Medical Group facility, for example, is home to a longtime food pantry, he said.
"What we're doing that is different is we want to draw the business case," Brisson said.
The San Antonio Food Bank and Houston Food Bank are working with health care and utility providers in their communities, but their approaches are different, said Zuani Villarreal, director of communication at Feeding America.
"... It looks like what Gleaners is trying to do is something new."