"Nutritious, Affordable." Who's Bankrolling a New National Hub for Healthy Food?

The Food Trust has come a long way since it started in 1992 with one farmers market at a public housing development in South Philadelphia, the only such source of fresh food for that area. That one market evolved into a citywide program engaging with neighborhoods, schools, corner stores, and policymakers. Today it works nationally, consulting in other cities to replicate successes in Philly. 

That national reach got a big boost recently, as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded the Food Trust $3.2 million to launch the Center for Healthy Food Access, an initiative to “ensure that every child in the United States has access to nutritious, affordable food.”

RWJF, the largest funder in the U.S. giving primarily to health, has been focused on reducing childhood obesity since 2007, directing $1 billion to this effort. As part of that work—and the foundation's broader push to create a "culture of health"—it has made improving food systems a major priority. Research has found that low-income Americans are far more likely to live in "food deserts"—places where healthy food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are not easily available or affordable. 

RWJF is among a number of national and local funders who've backed a range of approaches to tackle this "upstream" obstacle to better health. (Kresge is another leader in this space, as we've reported.) In backing the Center for Healthy Food Access at a significant level, the foundation described it as “the hub for RWJF's big bet to make healthy foods and beverages affordable, available and chosen in all communities.” No pressure, guys. 

In a way, it’s an extension of the progress the group has been making, a more formalized collaborative with its own funding mechanism. So the new center has qualities of both a grantmaker and a think tank, as it’s being designed to test new projects across the country and to serve as a repository for information, best practices, and convenings related to food access. Of the $3.2 million, $1 million is being subgranted to more than 15 organizations nationwide.  

It’s also notable just how many elements of this complex problem the CHFA is taking on. Its efforts include strengthening programs like SNAP and WIC, creating healthy food businesses and jobs, working with healthcare systems in low-income communities, and even working on marketing efforts to increase sales of healthy foods.

On this last point, Food Trust Deputy Director John Weidman described this to nonprofit news site Generocity as a “chicken and egg” dilemma behind alleviating food deserts, that is, needing to increase both supply and demand in an area to make it work.

The RWJF grant is only the latest score for the organization, which has become a draw for some big funders, reminding me of the attention environmental justice collaborative Emerald Cities has gained recently. 

Related: The Funders Behind a Push to Make Cities Both Sustainable and Inclusive

For example, Get HYPE Philly!, a collective of 10 nonprofits led by the Food Trust, landed a $5 million grant from pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Other notable backers include the Kresge, Philadelphia, and Knight foundations. And RWJF has been a big backer before, having made several six-figure grants to the organization over more than 10 years.  

Again, food systems are a complex problem, and one that foundations are increasingly drawn to with all kinds of motives. One of the challenges is connecting community efforts to national work, and Food Trust seems to have shown a talent at linking the two together. 

Related: The Bumper Crop of Funders Working for Sustainable Food