Why This Giant Foundation Thinks Dental Care Is So Important

You know what’s been a big thing for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation lately? Teeth.

Leaf through the 95 grants WKKF made in its Healthy Kids program in 2014, and you’ll find 10 percent of those grants deal with improving access to dental care for underserved populations. There’s support for a program to train dental hygienists at University of Detroit Mercy; there’s an initiative to establish midlevel dental providers in New Mexico, and others in Ohio, Vermont, Kansas, and Washington. And just recently, the foundation gave the American Dental Education Association a $400,000, two-year grant to help it expand efforts to improve diversity among dental students and faculty. 

What's up with all this? 

In fact, it's a great example of a foundation focusing on a crucial, yet overlooked and unsexy niche where its money can potentially go a long way. 

I don't need to explain why this niche isn't sexy. But one reason it's so crucial is that there are huge gaps in access to dental care in the United States. Only about half of all Americans have dental insurance, and obstacles to care are particularly high in minority and vulnerable communities. In October, nearly 5,000 areas in the country were designated as Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas—spots where there are 5,000 or more people per dentist.

Lower-income adults are especially vulnerable to letting their dental care lapse, and the effects can be dangerous. "When people go without oral health care, they risk discomfort, disease and even death,” says Richard W. Valachovic, the CEO of the ADEA.

Minority adults prefer to see minority dental care professionals, who may in turn be more inclined to set up shop in communities of color. And so initiatives designed to foster diversity in the dental care profession could go a long way towards reducing disparities in care. Which is where Kellogg's money comes in. 

“The diversity of dental and allied dental school faculty has a direct and positive effect on students, and ultimately on patients in communities where oral health care may be more difficult to find,” says Jeanne C. Sinkford, ADEA Senior Scholar-in-Residence. “These Kellogg Foundation grants are absolutely critical to the ability of the dental health professions to do our part in getting oral health care to the people who need it most.”

But there's even more to this issue. It's not just negative health effects resulting from poor dental care; it's negative economic effects, according to studies suggesting that people with bad teeth can face employment discrimination. 

Meanwhile, jobs providing dental care can offer a path to a middle-class or upper-middle-class life for people of color who become dentists or dental hygienists. And given the shortage of dentists in many areas, this is a smart place for a funder to make workforce investments.

So there are a lot of potential dividends to Kellogg's grantmaking around dental care, beyond just helping more people have a nicer smile.

This particular grant to ADEA continues a commitment that dates back to 2004.