Inside Foodsmart’s Mission To Fight Food Insecurity By Making Healthy Eating Habits More Accessible To Everyone

Inside Foodsmart’s Mission To Fight Food Insecurity By Making Healthy Eating Habits More Accessible To Everyone

Inside Foodsmart’s Mission To Fight Food Insecurity By Making Healthy Eating Habits More Accessible To Everyone

Foodsmart founder and chief executive officer Dr. Jason Langheier grew up in a self-described “blue collar family” who grew up eating free school lunches and had an on-again, off-again relationship with food stamps. He watched three aunts and uncles suffer strokes in their 50s whilst others died young from diabetes and coped with obesity. Dr. Langheier, who goes by Jay, was the first person in his extended family to go to college, during which time he always was surprised when 85-year-old grandparents visited campus during family weekends, remembering it felt surprising that people even lived that long.

He started believing he grew up poor.

He disavowed himself of that notion upon beginning work at Boston Medical Center and helping create the hospital’s pediatric obesity clinic. It was there that he saw many children subsisted on diets comprised of foods like chips and toaster pasties, given to them by food banks ironically referred to by pediatricians. At school, Langheier added, many ate their best meal of the day at school: a slice of pizza or chicken nuggets with chocolate milk. It was no wonder these kids were morbidly obese and coped with diabetes and hypertension by the time they were 5. It was a development unheard of in generations prior. This motivated Langheier and team to mobilize and better support the children and their families. They took a novel, more personalized approach to healthier living by offering personalized grocery lists based on a family’s food preferences and their food stamp budget. The plan had positive repercussions, as clinic staff noticed better insulin resistance in children. Moreover, it led doctors to ask if it were feasible to write so-called “foodscripts”—a portmanteau for what’s essentially a prescription pad—with a grocer or other person bringing the items to a family’s doorstep.

It was then when the seed for Foodsmart was planted.

“I really appreciate what families do to stretch the dollar to try to get good food on the table for their kids,” Dr. Langheier said.

Dr. Langheier’s experiences trace back to 2002, and a lot has happened since. In a recent interview with me conducted over email, Langheier explained Foodsmart has slowly but steadily become what he called “the largest foodcare provider in the United States” which has been clinically proven to “sustainably ameliorate food insecurity, obesity and chronic conditions while demonstrating positive return on investment for payer” through a vast network of dietitians whose role is providing food-centric telemedicine. On its website, Foodsmart describes itself as “the first telehealth experience that combines registered dietitian services, tailored meal planning tools, and the most broadly integrated food delivery marketplace in one location to make eating well easy on your mind and wallet.” According to Dr. Langheier, what makes Foodsmart stand out amongst its competitors in the marketplace is multi-faceted. Among those include grocery delivery, support with enrolling in and using SNAP/EBT benefits, and meals tailored to one’s medical needs.

When asked who benefits most from using Foodsmart, Dr. Langheier told me the company primary focus is on those people who “often face significant barriers to a healthy lifestyle including low-income families, rural communities, individuals living in food deserts, and people who more broadly want nutritional support for chronic disease or preventative measures,” adding that the majority of Foodsmart’s partners are Medicaid and Medicare insurers. Foodsmart serves 2.2 million people and “tens of millions” for whom Foodsmart is free.

“Our goal is to continue adding partnerships so that more people have access to foodcare through their health insurance plans, making it more accessible and affordable,” Dr. Langheier said.

Foodsmart exists because, as Dr. Langheier said to me, more than 44 million Americans (1–8 people) live with daily food insecurity—a station that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and socioeconomic issues such as the supply chain, rising inflation, and climate change. He also noted more than half of Americans cope with a chronic disease—which indeed are disabilities—and said Foodsmart is hellbent on “tackling food insecurity [by] impacting patient outcomes, and reducing the cost of care for millions of people.” All told, it’s a confluence of factors that make food insecurity the precarious and serious societal issue it is today.

However unstated, the reality is food insecurity is a matter of accessibility too. To wit, innumerable people in the disability community have neither the physical nor financial wherewithal to not only shop for groceries, but to bring the ingredients home and then cook something to feed themselves and their family. The aforementioned reliance on junk food that Dr. Langheier and his colleagues observed for sustenance isn’t a matter of laziness or apathy; for many, unhealthy food is better than no food at all. With rising food casts and low income, a disabled person surely could benefit from Foodsmart. It makes healthier eating more accessible, especially when combined with programs like SNAP and the fact Foodsmart delivers direct to homes. It means barriers are broken—which, as espoused here so often, is the whole point of accessibility.

My conversation with Dr. Langheier coincided with Foodsmart’s announcement today that it is joining forces with TPG’s Rise Fund to, according to the press release, “lead an investment of over $200 million” intended to further support Foodsmart’s work, which began in 2010. Langheier said the partnership with TPG will “amplify” the company’s mission, saying the increased support will help Foodsmart scale its operations and “expand our reach.” Furthermore, he said the backing will “integrate our foodcare solutions into more health plans and healthcare systems,” as well as enhancing its tech and much more.

In terms of feedback, Dr. Langheier said it has been overwhelmingly positive and boasted that 42% of Foodsmart’s users become food secure within 6 months. He added the company also has demonstrated “lasting clinical improvements in chronic disease” as evidenced by a slew of clinical, peer-reviewed studies. People continue to lose weight, with Dr. Langheier saying they save an average of 34% on their grocery bill. This cost savings makes “healthy eating more affordable and accessible” for people, which in turn contributes to weight loss. It’s a virtuous circle.

Dr. Langheier shared an anecdote about a person named Maya, who has struggled with weight loss and chronic illness in the last few years. He told me she tried conventional methods of losing weight, but those attempts only led to restive eating habits and binge eating. This caused Maya to be diagnosed as pre-diabetic and having non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Confronted with either worsening chronic kidney disease or entering dialysis treatment, Maya chose the former option and eventually was able to lose over 165 pounds. She discovered Foodsmart through her insurer and subsequently began a personalized meal program which included “culturally relevant foods” such as cactus, corn, and dark chocolate. The better nutrition, Dr. Langheier said, has enabled Maya to enjoy more positive health outcomes, as well as more easily navigate Long Covid. The journey, he added, spurred Maya to “let go of dieting rules and focus on what her body needs and craves, [which ultimately improved] her health and well-being.” Stories like Maya’s are the fuel with which Foodsmart uses to push onward in its work, Dr. Langheier said.

“By having the largest virtual network of dietitians in the country, we are able to match members with dietitians that they can trust: this often means they speak the same language or have the same cultural backgrounds. Food is a language for many individuals, so it is critical our members are matched with dietitians that speak this ‘language,’” he said. “Discussing food and health together is a deeply personal experience, so by starting with empathy and having a mutual understanding of backgrounds, we are able to see positive outcomes and member experiences as highlighted by our [net promotor score] in the 80s.”

As to the future, Dr. Langheier said Foodsmart is committed to its mission to bring nutritious food to all because they have a right to it.

“By bringing foodcare into the homes of millions of people already—and eventually hundreds of millions—of Americans, we’re preventing and overcoming disease, while improving quality of life,” he said.