Education — To date, efforts to inform and inspire healthier eating falls flat. Addiction to high sugar and high fat products runs deep, especially in poor communities. Education is the most difficult task — and one that needs to complement the other efforts of making healthy food more affordable and more available. Education alone will not sway consumer behavior.
In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cole Riley & Eva Kerner of Wellfare.
Cole Riley, Co-Founder: For the past several years, Cole has been firmly planted in the food & beverage industry — first as a founder of a yogurt brand, then leading a marketing & creative agency and most recently heading the Founders Give campaign in 2020. He’s a graduate of New York University and Brooklyn Law School.
Eva Kerner, Co-Founder: Eva’s always been curious about people & the communities they create. She started wide, studying politics at UC Santa Barbara, Sciences-Po Paris & LSE. As a brand strategist, she narrowed her approach to creating & galvanizing brands’ customer tribes. Today, she’s pairing societies in need of nourishment with simple yet bold solutions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
CR: Growing up in L.A. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I loved what that career path could offer: a creative sandbox to innovate, to cultivate talent and to scale a product or service worldwide. When I came to New York in 2009 to go to college, my goal was to discover where exactly I wanted to channel my energy. After a decade of startups, pivots, successes and failures — from selling condos in Manhattan to starting up a yogurt brand in upstate New York, from working at NBCUniversal and SAG-AFTRA to launching a content studio for emerging food brands — I finally found that vehicle: Wellfare.
EK: I am a first-generation American. My family immigrated from the former USSR in the middle of the Cold War, fleeing persecution. My parents arrived in this country with about $70 in their pocket. They were able to get on their feet in a foreign country with the help of several nonprofits, kind individuals & a steel determination to thrive. It was this determination that funded my prized education & ultimately paved the way for my own desire to create a legacy. Call it ‘only child’ syndrome, but I always wanted to make an impact in a community. That might’ve once meant I draft articles of reconciliation in a post-conflict zone but I have since traced a path of impact of a different sort. In the for-profit world, I kept asking myself the same question — how can I ensure that an organization’s, an individual’s or a community’s present & future are brighter, smarter, better? I sought to bring a compassionate, thoughtful & data-driven approach to a variety of industries, from advertising to insurance. When I think about charity, the nation’s method of ensuring the public’s interest is met, it dawned on me that it’s the last remaining industry that has altogether eluded innovation. And to scratch my diplomatic itch, when you consider a nation so divided as ours, perhaps food just might be the thing that brings us all together.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
CR: After finishing law school, I wanted to spend a couple months trying something different. So I got my taxi cab license. For two months, I drove Uber and yellow cabs around the five boroughs of New York. From the Village to Ozone Park, Riverdale to Kew Gardens, I got to interact with every type of person in every type of neighborhood. It was humbling, yet empowering; scary, yet exciting. It was my first service job and the key to truly unlocking this city and its people for me.
EK: Traveling the world over & hopping from industry to industry, go figure that, at 29, I find myself working 19 hours a day, 6 days a week with someone I met when I was 13 years old. I knew I had a good feeling about Cole when we were kids, I just didn’t know that I’d be this right about him.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
CR: Last year, when starting up the Founders Give campaign donating food to hospitals, I felt a seismic shift in my career trajectory. I knew a lot of emerging food brands in the city from a previous venture, so when COVID struck, it was easy to rally most of them to donate product to healthcare workers and patients in need. But when I was starting to get on the phone with the likes of KIND, Chobani, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s and some of the largest food companies in the world — I knew something was hitting differently. I never was shy of aiming for the stars, but this was the first time I was able to actually deliver on such a monumental scale. The campaign ended up becoming New York City’s largest private relief effort during the pandemic, but I walked away with a stronger belief that I can truly build something grand.
EK: I’d identify a tipping point from my advertising career that taught me a lesson I’ve since carried through life. I began my career without a shred of advertising experience, simply a deep appreciation for good work. Joining a very small agency, I was able to participate in & understand every part of the business. After having only worked on a handful of projects, I had developed an unshakeable faith in our vision, our process & our skillset. This knowledge granted me the confidence to pitch & win any business I wanted. We proceeded to land one publicly-traded company after another as clients. I applied that same logic to Wellfare. Cole & I procured every product, raised every dollar, fulfilled & delivered every box brought to each of our early subscribers’ doors. Once we created & perfected our operations & growth formula, I knew I could approach the most prestigious donors & brand partners to come join us in our vision to nourish America better. I’d say that success comes from taking the time to understand the thing you want to succeed with. Understanding it means that you can speak to it with confidence. It means you know it’s fallible & can be improved upon. It also means you have the courage to explore whether its core is sound. If that’s the case, once you have that certainty, you can make magic happen very quickly.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
CR: My wife. We met at NYU when we were both 21. We were just babies but we were both very ambitious people. I truly don’t think we could have had our individual successes without each other. That ability to come home after a long day, air your grievances, reset and strategize with each other has been invaluable.
EK: My godfather. He’s the first person I met in NYC, at an investor dinner about 5 years ago. He has since become the first person I introduce potential business partners to, to gauge his read on them. Only one has since made the cut (hint: my co-founder). His unbridled honesty, positivity & generosity make him the only person whose advice I listen to, at least without argument. He’s taught me what true unconditional support means — even if, from time to time, that’s a very harsh conversation. His unimaginable confidence in my abilities has allowed me to develop mine, his eyes sometimes seeing a future when mine are shut tight.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
CR: (1) Be fearless: the best example is the “cold call.” People are terrified to pick up a phone and make a cold call. For me, most of my success is attributed to cold outreach. What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t respond? (2) Be confident: you have to master the ability to sell yourself or your idea — even if you need to bullshit a bit at the beginning. The first job I ever got was working at a law firm in the Empire State Building when I was 18. I somehow finagled my way into an interview with one of the partners and told him straight up, “I’ll do twice the work for half the pay.” I barely knew my left from my right back then, but I portrayed extreme confidence that landed me the gig. (3) Be a sponge: get to know everything you can about everything you’re aiming to do. There’s too much information out there online, too many videos, too many forums, that there’s really no excuse. Learn, learn, learn. Wikipedia every element of that sector. Take people out to coffee and ask them a bunch of questions. Become an expert in whatever you want to pursue.
- Be Curious. Look Up: There is a wealth of knowledge in the world, wherever you go. Stories, everywhere, waiting to be passed on. Patterns forming, waiting to be spotted & applied to something totally new. If you want to see magic, simply look around. Ask people in environments you find curious & often they will be more than happy to share their perspectives. Many people had reservations when we named our nonprofit Wellfare. I decided to ask some folks we’d piloted the program with about the name, gauging if there was any stigma associated with it — secretly fully prepared to hear any earful. Their response? “You guys are helping me look after my family’s well-being. Isn’t that what welfare what meant to be about?” Curiosity, it takes courage but it sure pays.
- Strong Opinions, Loosely Held : A friend of mine once absentmindedly said, “You know the difference between me & my boss? I’m paid to research & he’s paid to have an opinion.” I loved this. You don’t have to wait until you’re in your 40s to have an informed opinion. I don’t think that Feeding America has distributing food all figured out. In fact, I think there’s a number of things they ought to be doing differently. So, I’m doing them. Naturally, I’m not doing them on their scale, so perhaps I’ll run into similar challenges but I’ll let you know when I get there! In short: learn about a topic, form opinions about it then talk about them. If your stance is challenged, be open to amending it & explaining why you’re doing so. Toss your ego aside. You’ll only generate more respect from smart folks if you can comfortably & with reason change your mind.
- Be Compassionate: This is what I took away from Simon Sinek’s famous ‘Golden Circle’ talk — discovering my why. People are my why — asking the right questions to understand people’s painpoints. This isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time it’s pretty hard because asking after other people means that, on some level, you’re caring for their wellbeing. It’s that care that makes for a successful manager, product developer or friend — having the capacity to improve their experience, if only for a moment. Wellfare is that for me. I hear household after household wanting to eat healthier, be stronger, more resilient. So I work hard to bring them food from the best sources in the nation, food that would’ve otherwise been destined for landfills simply because it’s mislabeled.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
CR: Don’t get outworked. I’m of the belief that working hard and working smart don’t need to be mutually exclusive. If I believe in something, I want to pour all my blood, sweat and tears into it. You’ll either fail fast (which I’ve done before) or start to see the fruits of your labor, quicker.
EK: ‘Every challenge is an opportunity to learn. Let no experience be wasted.’ From sitting in Holland Tunnel traffic, worried to my wit’s end I’ll miss a flight to watching my high school best friend die, I’ve walked away from every hardship I’ve ever faced with invaluable learning. Every deal I lost, every failed relationship, every argument, I’ve been able to look back on & see where I could improve. Now, that doesn’t mean that that lesson sticks. Sometimes, I need to learn a lesson 1,000 times over. But when it lands, it never falters. Then the next lesson comes.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
EK: Sure, there’s places where you can’t buy any food. Long stretches of freeways come to mind. Often, though, where there are people, there’s some retailer that’s popped up. Now, a food desert is where there’s little to no healthy food available for purchase. There’s plenty of that in America.
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
CR: I believe any thriving community is built on a strong foundation of healthy food. From that bedrock comes better education, better health, more economic opportunities and less crime. In communities across the country, from dense cities to rural towns, when there’s a lack of healthy food available, you see the same dire formula: obesity, chronic disease, high teen pregnancy rates, high infant mortality, high crime rates and less harmony. Our bodies need high quality fuel — much like vehicles — and when sugar and saturated fat is all that’s available, it shouldn’t be shocking to see large swaths of this country stalled out, costing more in the long run for everyone.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
CR: Food deserts are a result of harsh economic realities and consumer taste. Lower-income neighborhoods have less disposable income and thus, have less to spend on groceries. For higher-priced, natural food grocers, it’s bad business to invest in these types of neighborhoods. On the other hand, poverty breeds an addiction to sugar and high-fat products because that’s what’s mostly available for cheap. Children are growing up craving artificial flavors and frozen meals — and have limited exposure to healthier alternatives, leafy greens and nutritious fruits.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
EK: We’re focusing on accessibility, addressing the price, convenience & awareness of healthier foods, all at once. We aren’t bringing produce, familiar or otherwise, to folks’ doors. We are bringing better-for-you shelf-stable single-serve snacks, drinks & pantry goods, right to their door, twice a month. It’s these foods that are often the most unhealthy & expensive. So we find nutrient-dense alternatives to stuff they’re already eating, goods that are designed to delight, restore & fuel everyone in a household. Instead of soda, Fruit Gushers or Kraft Mac N’ Cheese, we’re serving up Sound Tea-Infused Seltzer, Wedderspoon Immunity Gummies & Banza Chickpea Mac N’ Cheese.
I was raised in a home where healthy meant bitter. Thankfully, now healthy can be tasty. You just have to know what to look for. Better yet, you feel great when you know why it’s good for you. We take the hard work out of looking for & learning about it. Our partner brands & distributors are happy to donate their mislabeled, short-coded & excess products which we then pack & deliver directly to our subscribers twice a month at no cost. In addition to having about $150-worth of food & drink packed in, every month we write notes on the nutritional benefits of what’s in there. At no cost, delivered to the door & with plenty of easy-to-understand information, we’re making healthier food more readily accessible to low-income populations otherwise left out of the food revolution the rest of us are living in.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
EK: We human beings are a stubborn bunch, our habits often resisting any real change. Naturally, I’m proud when I help create lasting behavioral change, when I encourage someone to look at situations differently. Pride & happiness are distinct feelings for me. For instance, I’m happy easing our subscribers’ lives by making healthier food accessible to them. But they already wanted that healthy food, it just wasn’t available to them. Bringing them what they want is simply a logistical issue we’re solving. My pride comes from the conversations we’re having with decision-makers at companies like Coca-Cola, Kroger & Dunkin’. We’re able to speak frankly on the shortcomings in the hunger relief space, encouraging them to question the status quo & their participation in it. In the same breath, we offer simple sustainable solutions already applied elsewhere to a different problem set.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
CR: The 5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options:
We need to meet the consumer at their door, not continue investing in capital-intensive brick-and-mortar locations that carry limited inventories, create large amounts of waste and force people out of their homes and in line.
- Lower retail margin
Retailers need to bring their margins down even further. Good food costs too much and retailers need to either rein in their costs or sacrifice profit — something fundamentally impossible for any shareholder-driven enterprise.
- Product standards
Retailers need to put up walls around what they will carry in an effort to improve the health of the community: no sugar sodas, no candy bars, no high preservative soups.
- Customer data
Whether it’s supermarkets, low cost grocers, bodegas, pantries or the government, no one is asking food insecure households what they want, what they like or what they can afford. Understanding the customer and creating solutions around that feedback is paramount.
To date, efforts to inform and inspire healthier eating falls flat. Addiction to high sugar and high fat products runs deep, especially in poor communities. Education is the most difficult task — and one that needs to complement the other efforts of making healthy food more affordable and more available. Education alone will not sway consumer behavior.
Today, Wellfare is championing these five focuses to bring to market a new approach to fighting food insecurity.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
EK: The Farmlink Project. They connect farms with a surplus of fresh, nutritious produce to communities in need. They have a similar philosophy to ours — they understand that nutrition lies at the heart of a community’s, the environment’s and a child’s health. Started by a group of students, they’ve taken a scrappy approach & made it scalable. The Farragut Food Collective has taken the direct-to-door grocery service & tried to bring it to low-income households, at a low-cost.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
CR: You should receive a tax deduction for time donated. Currently, you only receive tax deductions for money or product donated to charitable organizations. But if you donate 4 hours of your Saturday morning to a soup kitchen, all you get is a feeling of satisfaction. As much as I’d like to be an idealist, I think the federal government should create an economic incentive for giving your time to those in need. How many more lawyers and accountants would volunteer their time? How many people would come out to deliver boxes of food or clean up the streets if they could get a little tax break in April? It’s a small change to the tax code that could fundamentally how people support their communities and neighbors.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
EK: Civic engagement. It says everything about the mental, physical & emotional health of a community. I went to a French-speaking primary school & something that stood out to me was a course called Civic Studies. It taught us, both in theory & in practice, the power of being more mindful & compassionate citizens. 2020 saw a year of phenomenal civic spirit, both in terms of coming together to support small businesses, donating to charity & standing up for one’s political values. While a crisis always brings the best (and the worst) out of people, I wonder if we can stay the course & maintain our desire to support our communities. I wonder if more people will volunteer their time, deliver meals to people in need, phone bank to speak with the lonely, pick up trash around the city or tutor kids from foreign countries etc. The more of us feel like we belong, that we are cared for & that we matter, the better it is for us all. It shouldn’t take a celebrity to champion a great cause like community. It also shouldn’t take a pandemic to rally us. But it has, so let’s keep the flame alive.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
EK: Laurence D. Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the largest money-management firm in the world with more than $8.6 trillion in assets under management. One of the most powerful people in the world, Larry uses his power to call on business leaders to take on environmental & social issues the government fails to adequately solve for. While some may disagree with BlackRock’s investments or even Mr. Fink’s own ventures, I believe he is an exceptional example of conscious capitalism, where money isn’t the enemy — dismissiveness & ignorance is. I want to change the expectations we have of nonprofits, for them to scale & succeed the way we expect for-profits to. I want nonprofits to become hubs for innovation & sustainable impact. This will only come if one of the most powerful people in the world will champion our philosophy & our cause. Otherwise, we risk being stuck doing charity work that’s ‘rewarding’ & ‘nice’ & that simply doesn’t cut it for us.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Wellfare: Sign up for our monthly newsletter to follow along with our growth, subscriber testimonials, updates from our newest brand partners & what we’re reading! Check out our website & sign up! wellfare.org
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.