We all benefit when the private sector helps solve the riddle of chronic food insecurity
Like a well-balanced meal, the Los Angeles Food Equity Roundtable features a healthy mix of ingredients – philanthropic leaders, community-based organizations and government decision-makers. But the added spice comes from the participation of the business community.
The Roundtable continues to benefit from the insights and recommendations of leading technology and retail companies involved in food sourcing and distribution. Together, we’re trying to close gaps in supply chains and identify efficiencies that can lower costs and support broader nutritional security.
Here, Roundtable representatives from Instacart and Microsoft share their take on how the private sector can help modernize outdated food systems and increase food access for vulnerable residents. Tiffani Alvidrez serves as Public Policy Manager at online delivery service Instacart, while Jeremy Goldberg serves as Microsoft’s worldwide director of critical infrastructure.
How did you find out about the Food Equity Roundtable? What led you on a personal level to get involved and get the issue placed on your company’s list of priorities?
Jeremy Goldberg: A colleague who is an alumni of the Fuse Corps Fellowship reached out about the Roundtable. I was immediately drawn to the possibility. It might seem unusual that a New Yorker would be interested to do something in Los Angeles, but it’s not. Frankly, I reflected on what I learned and witnessed during [the first wave of the pandemic] — when the issues of hunger become further exacerbated in our cities across the U.S. and globally. On the one hand, there’s an excess of food for some, but not all. You have eggs, milk and other products thrown out, or become spoiled. And, at the same time you have people who are hungry. Kids, families, adults. It was jarring for me. This effort was a way I could play a small part, on behalf of Microsoft, to help others.
Tiffani Alvidrez: I heard about the formation of the Food Equity Roundtable during my conversations with staff at L.A. County as I talked about Instacart’s investment in food insecure municipalities, states and regions. The more I talked about Instacart’s unique position of being a bridge to food insecure communities by eliminating the barrier of transportation, the more alignment we saw in our work to help address a critical public policy issue. And while the Food Equity Roundtable is a relatively new initiative, many of the stakeholders involved have long been committed to helping fight food insecurity and hunger, meaning they deeply understand the systemic nature of the problem as well as how it has evolved throughout the course of the pandemic. This made the opportunity for Instacart to join the Roundtable and continue learning from a diverse group of leaders with localized expertise on these issues incredibly appealing.
What role can private corporations play in helping solve the riddle of chronic food insecurity in the U.S.? What special skills can they bring to bear? Data? Marketing? Money?
Alvidrez: All of the above! Whether partnering with Brookings Institution to share data related to mapping food deserts for its May report, leveraging Instacart’s social media tools to highlight the work of local and national organizations committed to addressing hunger, or investing millions of dollars to ensure the most vulnerable communities in America have access to fresh food and staples, [we’re trying] to develop products, partnerships and programs that will help increase access to nutritious food for more people.
Goldberg: The contribution each corporation is best situated to make will differ, but it does come down to material investment in the kinds of things you’re talking about. Data is at the core of a lot of the work I do, and a lot of times it tracks back to helping people make better, more effective decisions. There is no lack of data on the issue of food security, but it does need to be brought together and analyzed effectively. Companies can help provide data to key organizations and the platforms that will help analyze it at scale. Marketing is important too of course – we need to raise the level of support for food security investments and actions and marketing can help do that. But this isn’t something we can accomplish with a one-off campaign, we need to build sustained support that will continue to make food security action a social priority in the long term. Money, of course, helps across all of the challenges of food security. And we need to invest in both making sure we help make more people food secure right now, as well as in the systems and processes that will reduce and eliminate the problem in the long term.
The Food Equity Roundtable is a unique cross-sector effort, bringing public and private organizations to the table. But ultimately, companies are responsible to individual shareholders, while the government is responsible to the public at large. How do we bridge that difference?
Alvidrez: We bridge that difference through forums similar to what’s been created through the Roundtable. Companies, government, nonprofit and academia are all implementing a variety of innovations, programs and services that address critical needs of communities but rarely do these entities have an opportunity to come together to share information and expand partnerships. Local government acting as a convener is an ideal approach that we hope to see replicated in other municipalities across the state and country.
Goldberg: Those can be countervailing forces, but they aren’t always. And while there are some companies that will choose not to engage on issues like this, there are many that will. The question is: How do we encourage more companies to engage and how do we get the most out of the companies that do engage? I think focusing on impact is very important. Much of the hesitation around getting involved in this kind of work can be around whether or not a company’s investment will have real impact and is “worth it.” The more we can demonstrate how that impact is happening – numbers of people becoming food secure who weren’t before, changes to the systems that are causing food security in the first places – the more it will seem like a viable choice.
From your business perch, what do you think the biggest challenge is in trying to tackle food insecurity? How do you think we can work together to overcome obstacles?
Alvidrez: : The causes of food insecurity are complex and differ from community to community, which makes it incredibly difficult to help solve. We are committed to sustained, impactful changes rather than focusing on quick, short-term initiatives that often only provide a bandage to systemic problems. For example, a collaborative effort among Instacart, local and national retail partners, and relevant government agencies has brought more than 60 brick and mortar retailers (7,000+ stores) online to better serve EBT SNAP recipients in communities across the country. More than 25 million people experiencing food insecurity can use their EBT SNAP benefits through Instacart, which is critical since we know that grocery delivery can help address physical mobility challenges, friction associated with the in-store shopping experience, and challenges with consistent, reliable transportation.
Goldberg: One of the biggest challenges in business is matching the right solutions to the right problems in the right places. Food insecurity can be a very local issue. Many of the ways to address food insecurity happen at that local level because that’s by definition where the people who need help are. But there are also larger issues in play across our food system that contribute to making that food insecurity happen at the local level. So the result is a very complex set of circumstances in which solving one problem may not be sustainable or scale effectively. The biggest challenge isn’t just the necessary investments, but how to communicate among people who are working in different places to make sure those investments are having the right impact. The Food Equity RoundTable is a good example of one way to begin solving that problem. But in order to apply investments effectively, we need to have those investments in the first place.