Commit to providing training to leadership.
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 Sona Jones.
Sona Jones is the VP of Community & Impact at WW. Sona leads strategy and growth Social Impact, including WW Good, a 501(c)3 dedicated to bridging the nutrition gap in underserved communities; and the Healthy Living Coalition, a cross-sector coalition working towards accelerating solutions on UN SDG2/Zero Hunger. Sona also leads strategy and growth around community-building events, experiences and content.
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?
I’ve spent the last 15 years at the intersection of brand, experiences and impact. Feeling a strong sense of purpose in my work has always been important to me, and I’ve had a winding–but very interesting–path to get where I am today.
I joined WW as part of the business development team to activate new communities through events and content. My first few months were creating the digital infrastructure to engage the thousands of people we’d be meeting through WW’s sold-out “Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus” nationwide tour. Participating on the tour team was the experience of a lifetime.
That said, for me: social impact and community building are what get me up in the morning. So the additional opportunity to lead WW’s Global Social Impact strategy is a dream. I oversee WW Good, our 501(c)3, and led the launch of the Healthy Living Coalition, which is a cross-sector alliance to drive progress on nutrition insecurity by transforming the role of brands on the issue.
Prior to WW, I was the Chief Operating Officer at Chicago Ideas, a nonprofit platform dedicated to democratizing ideas. We produced Chicago Ideas Week, the world’s largest ideas festival with tickets at 15 dollars or free. That’s where I fell in love with social entrepreneurs, impact-driven leaders, and telling their stories. I also live for the magic that happens when the only common denominator between people is curiosity on a specific topic. I came in as Head of Marketing & Media, so not only did I learn how to run an organization, but I also led the digital transformation, brand overhaul, multiple omni-channel campaigns, and corporate and public partnerships.
Prior to that, I held different roles across media, content and entertainment that really turned me into the generalist that I am today. I got my start at Sony Pictures in global promotions and licensing, then moved to Chicago and led midwest grassroots marketing. I also did the scariest thing I’d ever done which was quit my job at Sony to be employee #1 at a fashion start up–but I learned more in those 9 months than I had in the previous three years. It’s also where I got the bug for startups and fast-paced, entrepreneurial environments. I went onto Rand McNally–another legacy brand–to work on a digital consumer activation that resulted in a Travel Channel TV show. I subsequently went to The Onion to start up the experiential business there, which is where I got my crash course in all things publishing, including ad sales and how that side of the business works. And, finally, I cut my teeth in e-commerce and global retail at Bucketfeet, a startup footwear brand that was focused on social responsibility through storytelling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Does being the inspiration for articles in The Onion count?
This is a tough question as I find even the most banal occurrences interesting and am hungry for lessons in nearly everything. And I’m guessing we’re not looking for stories from my spending my early twenties at Hollywood premiere parties.
My time at Chicago Ideas held a lot of turning points for me. Because I was exposed to so many global and local thought leaders and big ideas on a near-constant basis, my perspective on the world shifted almost weekly. I remember one year being backstage at one of our events–nearly nine months pregnant–and as I was about to kneel to grab my phone charger from an outlet, a high-profile celebrity, who was backstage as well, came across the room to help me grab it. And at that moment–I have no idea why–I could not stop thinking about how privileged my life was, that someone would care that I would need to exert myself to grab a phone charger when there are plenty of women around the world who don’t even have access to proper prenatal and postpartum care. It just reinforced for me that I want to dedicate my life to creating greater equity among all people–whether that is equity in health, opportunity or education.
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?
My time at The Onion was instrumental in teaching me how to set a target and articulate an operating plan against it. Learning how to describe a vision and assigning numbers to help quantify its goals changed everything for me.
When I took over as COO at the Chicago Ideas, we were up against a sizable budget deficit and many folks on the team felt lost. I put everything I learned at The Onion into action, and we ended up seeing the exact results we set out to achieve within 5 months. We broke down every goal into action plans and were very clear about each one’s dependencies. To this day, I don’t start a project without understanding where we’re trying to go or what exactly we’re trying to accomplish–I always ask: how will the world/our business/our audience be different when we are successful? Without it, it’s hard to bring others along on the vision, fight for resources or measure success. I coach my team constantly on “doing the math” when wanting to start something new. We have to know where we want to go and take the time to figure out what it will take to get there if we’re going to get anything new off the ground.
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?
As I mentioned before, I try to learn something from just about everyone so there have been many, many people along the way. My manager, Jill Abbott, at BucketFeet was one of the first people to see value in me that I didn’t see in myself and gave me the confidence to trust my experience and instincts. I think that because I never got an MBA, I used to feel a bit insecure in environments when I was the odd woman out. She helped me see how my experiences building initiatives from scratch were the perfect counterbalance to others’ strengths. Now that I’m at a place in my career where I don’t feel as much imposter syndrome, I am always on the lookout for individuals whose diverse strengths will be an asset to our teams, even if they don’t have a specific “pedigree.” I’ll always place extra value on creative thinkers, utility players, and people who know how to get stuff done–and will always take the time to show them why they are special in ways they might not yet recognize.
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?
Above all, the ability to create and nurture interpersonal relationships. That’s the first thing I do when I start a job. First of all, it makes work way more fun when you know and like the people you’re working with. Secondly, my roles have historically been somewhat disruptive in that I’m tasked with creating something. And that means you need to ask for favors in addition to helping your team members see “the why” in your projects. When the pandemic first hit, we decided to create the first-of-its-kind live virtual experience with Oprah. It was a massive cross-functional effort, and we only had about four weeks from concept to execution. But knowing who to call for each element and understanding the challenges they’d have to overcome proved to be immensely valuable.
Next, being able to ask for what I want (which starts with knowing what I want). Whether it’s resources for a project, respect from a colleague, or a promotion for myself. The story of how I got to Chicago Ideas is an interesting example. I remember leaving my first session in 2011 (it was 10 years ago, but I still remember that I saw a 3-D printer for the first time, and I heard a speaker talk about how education and healthcare are the last two industries really ripe for disruption) feeling so inspired and thinking, “I want to work there some day.” Fast forward to 2016: I was having coffee with a former direct report and she’d randomly mentioned to me that she heard Chicago Ideas was hiring a head of marketing. Within 4 business days, I had an offer, and later, went on to lead the organization. It was my first conscious lesson in the power of setting your intention.
Finally, being able to quickly prioritize and conduct a shorthand cost/benefit analysis when presented with opportunities. Some of this comes naturally to me because I’ve worn so many different hats over the years, so I understand the resources–like people, technology, or financial investment–needed to fully leverage opportunities. But mostly it’s about maintaining discipline and a commitment to your end goal to help assess whether the juice will be worth the squeeze–and how thirsty you are that day!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I remember when I was just starting out as an assistant at Sony Pictures, I had the chance to go to lunch with our EVP of Marketing and gathered the courage to ask him his biggest life lesson. He shared two words with me: “Read everything.” I consider this some of the best advice I’ve received to date. I read every article I come across, whether it’s about my specific interests and/or focus areas. I’m at risk of being the human definition of “knowing just enough to be dangerous,” but it’s trained me to be able to talk to anyone about just about anything and helped me build invaluable relationships–I’m as comfortable talking about federal nutrition policy or organizational behavior as I am discussing Britney Spears’ catalogue. It also has the added benefit of opening me up creatively because I’m constantly digesting new ideas, and it encourages me to have the curiosity to peek around corners and think strategically.
I was reflecting recently on how this is exactly what my dad did when he first moved to this country from India. He made sure that he could move through different groups fluidly, and always had something to talk about with anyone he came across. That was a huge reason he was able to find success in America, especially without a college degree.
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?
This is a great question and an even better opportunity to help evolve the discussion. Most people in the nutrition community are moving away from referring to areas of low food access as “food deserts,” because the term “desert” suggests that these areas are naturally occurring phenomena. They are not. They are the direct result of systemic injustice, policy, and built environments. Black families are twice as likely than white families to face food insecurity. The encouraging part is that we, as a society, are finally reckoning with the unjust causes behind some of these statistics.
Some are starting to use the term “food apartheid,” but I typically prefer to reference areas of low food access, or individuals experiencing food insecurity. Using people-first language prioritizes dignity and empathy, while also respecting the fact that individuals are more than just a specific term or label. And when we use the word “experiencing,” we’re acknowledging the fact that this is a temporary state — and a problem that can be solved.
There are many places in the United States where there is no access to affordable, nutrient-dense food. Nineteen million people in the US live in areas of low food access–defined as living more than a mile from a grocery store, or ten miles if in a rural area. And at WW, we’re working to solve more than just food insecurity. We’re focused on nutrition security: The state in which all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious foods that meet their dietary needs and food preferences to have an active, healthy lifestyle.
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?
Unequal access to nutritious food results in a host of issues ranging from poorer health, education and economic outcomes. At risk of stating the obvious, if you have to walk 15–20 minutes and ride the bus for 20 minutes just to get to a grocery store (on top of working multiple jobs and limited access to childcare) the chances are that you’re not going to do it. You’re much more likely to grab the more accessible inexpensive, packaged and/or processed foods that are low in nutrients. This results in what is called the double burden of malnutrition–lack of access to nourishing foods resulting in diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes. From a health perspective, malnourished patients typically experience hospital stays that are nearly 2x longer than those who are well-nourished, 54% higher hospital readmissions, and those readmissions can cost up to 17,000 dollars per patient on average.
From an education perspective, according to this UNICEF report, malnourished children score lower on math tests and are 20% less likely to be able to read by age 8 than their well nourished peers. As adults, children who were malnourished during development earn 20% less than those who were well nourished.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
Though the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity across the United States, there was no single cataclysmic event that created the areas of low food access we see today. It is the result of many–often racially charged–policies both by the government and the private sector. We’re starting to see more discourse around redlining–policies designed to prevent Black home ownership in predominantly white neighborhoods to promote segregation. There’s a related concept called “Supermarket Redlining,” through which decades of corporate policies and stereotyping have made it harder for Black people to reach grocery stores than most white people. CNN published an excellent piece on this last year that I recommend checking out to learn more.
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?
Our team is working on a few distinct initiatives:
First, we lead the Healthy Living Coalition, which brings disparate voices together: cross-sector brands and nonprofit advisors to drive what we call “collective acceleration,” using one another’s strengths and experiences to create greater impact. The challenges of food and nutrition insecurity are complex, multi-faceted and for brands looking to get meaningfully involved, there hasn’t been a clear path on how to engage–especially for non-food brands. With the Healthy Living Coalition, we have a few key current project areas:
- With our mobilization campaigns, we aim to use the reach of our platforms to shift the narrative and educate on issues surrounding nutrition insecurity. Through our January 2021 campaign, we reached 20 million people organically.
- On corporate advocacy, we’ve drafted a plan of action that asks companies to examine questions related to their understanding of and behavior around food systems and the root causes of nutrition insecurity.
- Through our Reimagining Giving project, we’re crafting a framework to help brands give in greater alignment with their values, with an eye on sustained access to nutrition vs. one-off commitments.
- And finally, accelerating the work of social entrepreneurs in the space, which we’ll focus on in 2022.
Our team also leads the work of WW Good, our 501(c) dedicated to democratizing wellness for communities in need. To date, we’ve already facilitated donations from over 500K members through WellnessWins, our member rewards program. These donations go towards providing fresh fruits and vegetables to communities in need, but we are also sharpening our focus by giving to more grassroots organizations that are tackling nutrition insecurity, fitness, and mental health issues because we know that all these elements of health are interconnected.
To jumpstart that work, in 2021 we launched the WW Wellness Impact Award, dedicated to amplifying the work of leaders around the globe who are working to remove barriers to wellness in their communities. In North America, we specifically honored Black, Indigenous and leaders of color in acknowledgement of the sizable health inequities those communities face. Two winning organizations tackling nutrition insecurity include: Eatwell Exchange, founded by two best friends and registered dieticians who are working to provide culturally relevant nutrition education and access to culturally-preferred fruits and vegetables to low-income African American communities in Florida; and Esperanza Farms, who not only grow and donate culturally-preferred, organic and pesticide-free foods to farm working families in California, but who also provide training on food justice so the next generation is able to advocate for themselves at the systems level.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
WW is rooted in community, and it’s incredible to see that spirit manifest itself in so many unexpected ways. Late last year when our CEO, Mindy Grossman, announced the Healthy Living Coalition to the WW community, a member wrote in to share an idea to help with food insecurity. We got on the phone with him, and he shared his experience having run a food bank for many years and how there’s a piece of legislation that he thinks could be improved with WW’s help. My team started digging into it, and we are now on the precipice of galvanizing our corporate community to join us in calling for the issuance of revised guidance on that legislation and making a real dent in food waste and food insecurity. I’m so proud not only of how this has been a community initiated and community driven project, but also how WW’s leadership–especially our Chief Brand Officer, Gail Tifford–have been on board to let us run with it and see how far we can take it in service of making the world a better place.
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.
I’ll share what we’ve developed for our action plan on the issue, which is really intended as principles that any company–cross sector–can adopt. The challenge we’ve posed to ourselves is: How might we look beyond donations to supporting our own employees with financial and educational resources to drive sustained progress?
For our efforts to be sustainable, we must understand the role we play in today’s food system. Commit to establishing a culture of learning and a platform to educate ourselves, our stakeholders and our audiences on the multi-faceted issues of nutrition insecurity. This can ultimately inform business model innovations, from procurement to marketing. How?:
Commit to providing training to leadership
Commit to creating employee awareness programs and other learning opportunities
Commit to providing annual communications to employees (both full and part-time) with information on external resources such as federal nutrition programs
Commit to evaluating and adjusting employee wages to increase purchasing power across our workforce and drive consumption of healthier, more sustainable food options. How?:
Commit to identifying the socioeconomic barriers that prevent employees from accessing nutritious foods. This includes evaluating the wages of our lowest-paid workers, availability of nutritious foods in their communities, and workplace accommodations.
Commit to designing and implementing an action plan that improves access to nutrition and wellbeing for our workforce. This includes financial resources such as a wellbeing wage adjustment to make nutritious food more affordable and attainable for employees, subsidy programs and group subscription services as relates to nutrition and wellbeing.
We also recognize that we have an external responsibility to the communities we serve through our philanthropic giving. Commit to allocating more funding to organizations that advance food justice by addressing the systemic inequities that contribute to nutrition insecurity. This means working with partners that focus on the socio-economic factors and structural barriers that prevent the availability, affordability and consumption of safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods. How:
Commit to a 10% minimum standard for philanthropic funding to organizations focused on the root causes of nutrition insecurity
Commit to increasing opportunities for unrestricted funding
Commit to promoting healthy communities that surround our businesses as well as where our employees live and work; by creating lasting partnerships with local leaders and identifying opportunities for strategic support
Commit to incorporating values of food justice in advocacy efforts, while actively working to ensure that we do not advocate against these interests
To create sustainable change, we need to shift our behaviors and find solutions that are creative, forward-thinking and inclusive of many different voices.
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?
Aside from one-off donations, this is a difficult issue for most brands to have a sustained impact on unless they are retailers. Dollar General very recently announced that they’d be adding fresh produce in up to 10,000 communities over the next several years, with a meaningful number of those stores in current USDA defined food deserts. That is amazing. Any brand working to tackle issues around living wages is also contributing to the solution. But some of the most innovative work is also happening at the federal level with the expansion of SNAP to include online retailers. That’s a massive boon for individuals living in areas of low food access.
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?
We’d love to see the USDA issue revised guidance on the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act so that private companies no longer see liability as a barrier to donating fresh foods. We’d also love to see legislation introduced that creates tax incentives and reduces liability for social entrepreneurs or nonprofits who are donating food at low or no cost, as well as farmers who want to donate produce. To create a circular economy and encourage innovation in this space, we should make it easy for those wanting to fill some of the “last mile” gaps we see when it comes to food distribution. For example, if you own a farm with surplus produce and you want to donate that fresh food, you should be able to deduct the labor or transportation costs associated with the donation.
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. 🙂
I would shift the conversation away from minimum wage towards income disparity or inequality. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the words associated with this issue. The minimum, by definition, will never be enough. Most people are not striving to make the minimum. We’re not a society that likes the bare minimum of anything. I’d like to see us start talking about the ratio of the highest and lowest total compensation levels at companies as the metric we look to describe fair wages.
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. 🙂
I’d like to have breakfast (honestly, drinks) with my team. They are the most INCREDIBLE people–a true powerhouse team that’s so dedicated to this socially impactful work–and I’ve never met them! We all joined this team remotely and most of us live in different states. And I suppose if Michelle Obama wanted to join us, that would be fine. The five of us could chat about nutrition security all day long. 🙂
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow @healthylivingcoalition on Instagram for informative content on nutrition and food insecurity. You can also learn more at ww.com/wwgood, by following WW on LinkedIn or by following me on LinkedIn.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.