Knowing nutrition is powerful medicine, Jeremy Cooley, founder and CEO of Tangelo, is on a mission to change the way we understand, access, and consume food.
“Food is at the greatest moments of our lives,” Cooley says, “But certain foods are also killing us.”
Cooley has a background in technology but is passionate about human behavior economics, health, ocean exploration, and community. He also spends time in Batesville, Indiana visiting his family's U-Pick berry farm, owned and operated by his aunt and uncle, and has learned, firsthand, how impactful nutrition can be.
Discovering food as medicine
In 2017, Cooley’s father, who he considered his best friend and mentor, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Told he had just a few more months to live, Cooley was determined to extend his father’s life. After seeking answers from dieticians, nutritionists, health coaches, and other medical experts, Cooley found himself building spreadsheets of nutritional information.
Food, he discovered, could make a significant difference in his father’s health–and it did, helping to extend his father’s life.
“Those were the best moments of my life,” says Cooley, smiling. Upon his father’s passing, Cooley asked himself, ‘Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?’” Then he started to wonder, “Why aren’t doctors prescribing food?”
It didn’t make any sense to him.
Dietary risk factors are the leading contributor to the global burden of disease (GBD) and we know nutrition can lower the risk of disease, improve chronic symptoms, and contribute to better health outcomes. Yet, 37 million Americans are food insecure and 92% of Americans have a mineral or vitamin deficiency.
If purchasing food is a problem, purchasing healthy food is going to be a bigger problem, especially for those living in a rural area or a food desert. And how many Americans don’t have a car, the time, or the proper kitchen supplies for cooking? Or don’t understand the basics of nutrition or which foods to eat, assuming they even have access or affordability?
As Cooley saw it, the problem wasn’t that we didn’t know about food insecurity and the importance of nutrition. The problem was that we knew and weren’t doing enough about it.
Solving nutrition insecurity isn't complicated
After reviewing traditional food assistance, produce prescription, and nutrition incentive programs, Cooley realized, “There was no railroad. There was no platform that connected healthcare, the consumer, and the farmer.”
Knowing education, access, and affordability are the biggest risk factors, Cooley felt compelled to develop and launch a large-scale solution that reimagined the way we feed America. Instead of handing out insufficient funding and one-off meals, we needed to rethink the entire food infrastructure process–and that’s what Tangelo has done.
The platform is built around the Tangelo Wallet, which allows private and public funds to be deposited into the platform and accessed by families in-app to be used to shop for healthy foods in the Tangelo marketplace. These nutrition incentives can be earned based on actions, so someone with Type 2 Diabetes can be rewarded for taking health-promoting actions such as watching a video on cooking a nutritious meal.
The platform ties incentive dollars to healthy activities and most importantly, education.
Traditional food programs have fallen short for numerous reasons, but one major problem is that healthcare organizations have no way of knowing or tracking what foods their patients are buying. Even if they hand out food vouchers for fruits and vegetables, health plans can’t necessarily track the individual’s diet and do so in a way that’s scalable and sustainable.
Developing local solutions to national problems
Tangelo ensures that the majority, if not all, of the food purchased through the app is healthy and sourced locally. By working directly with farmers and local producers, disintermediating the supply chain, Tangelo more than doubles the farmer's revenue while providing more nutrition per dollar invested/distributed, This reduces food waste by matching food demand with food supply, stimulating the local economy.
Tangelo’s PaaS and mobile app have been beta tested and proven successful. In one California county, Tangelo enrolled over 29,000 families in less than six weeks, distributed approximately $10M, and delivered over 240,000 healthy food boxes, which included over six million pounds of healthy food at no cost to the families, and all produce was sourced from 86 local farms, 86% of which were minority-owned.
Tangelo is now partnered with over 600 farmers in both urban and rural areas and is scaling their nutrition incentive programs across the country, working with both private and public sectors, to develop comprehensive nutrition interventions.
“Until now, there’s never been a platform that has all of the data in one place to show that increasing affordable healthy food access is not just the right thing to do to promote population health and reduce health disparities but actually a smart business decision that reduces plan risk,” says Nathan Bernstein, Head of Investor Relations at Tangelo. There are countless programs established by government entities, non-profits, and healthcare organizations, but they don't have a comprehensive picture of the entire data set from consumption, behavior, and outcome, making it difficult to measure the effectiveness of programs at the population level and achieve the best outcomes.
Tangelo is changing this by reimagining how payers and providers can make healthy choices easier choices for their members and patients. By combining nutrition education with funds and healthy food on one platform, organizations can track population health risks and food needs and change food-buying behaviors, while also home delivering healthy foods to all communities, and empowering food-insecure community members with the knowledge on how to prepare nutritious meals and live healthier lives.
Funding the solutions at scale
“Everyone talks about it, but there is not enough funding going toward healthy food access,” says Cooley. “Most health plans don’t budget for it yet.” And even when they do, food programs can be costly, hard to measure their efficacy, and difficult to scale, making them short-lived, slow to scale, or unsuccessful.
With Tangelo, individuals can soon use SNAP benefits to purchase food through the Tangelo app. Organizations can also use Tangelo as a platform to share their educational content and inform community members about the benefits of nutrition. Payers can also make direct referrals to Tangelo through Healthify, with the opportunity to implement population health solutions or tailor their nutrition interventions to meet the unique food-related needs of high-risk populations.
While the platform makes education and access possible, funding is needed to truly bridge the gap to lasting affordability. “Giving people food doesn’t solve the problem [of food insecurity],” says Bernstein. “Getting people out of poverty solves the problem and you need to prioritize healthy food to do that.”
As a mission-driven company, Tangelo plans to instill significant long-term change. They don’t just want to feed America; they want to nourish America. And the only way to get people to eat healthier is to make food affordable and accessible, Cooley explains, so they’re only working with partners who are interested in the larger mission of eliminating nutrition insecurity and improving health outcomes.
“Why does this matter?” Bernstein says. “Food insecurity leads to poor dietary choices and unhealthy coping strategies, leading to chronic disease and mental health problems, which leads to higher healthcare costs, and when people are sick, it’s harder to keep a job or get a job, which limits their income or puts them in poverty. And in poverty, people must make impossible tradeoffs between paying utility bills, rent, higher education, and medical bills. It’s a virtuous cycle… and providing all people the access they deserve is actually good business. When factoring in the environmental, health, and societal externalities, this saves the government, health plans, and risk-bearing providers money. The seemingly subtle shift from promoting calories to providing nutrition makes all the difference and prevents rising-risk populations from turning into high-risk populations.”
We all want to end food insecurity and prevent avoidable diseases, but how many of us are contributing to or developing a lasting solution?
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