3 pandemic trends shaping a better food system

“The standard American diet kills us slowly in normal times and quickly in COVID times,” Michael Pollan told Kara Swisher as part of a recent interview for her podcast Sway. 

To Pollan, it is clear that people who suffer from preexisting diet-related conditions are more likely to get serious COVID-19 infections. Forty-nine percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 had hypertension, 48 percent were obese and 28 percent suffered from diabetes. He argues that we need to pay more attention to how diets affect health. Directly, they cause non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. As a result of these, people are more vulnerable to illnesses such as COVID-19. 

The COVID-related coverage we see in the news and the discussions we have with our friends, families and colleagues might not award the impact healthy diets have on immunity enough attention. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the pandemic is helping to illuminate and propagate the systemic linkages between food, health and wellness. And as an added bonus, much of the progress not only benefits health but also sustainability.

There are promising signs across three dimensions that I’ll highlight today. But I’d also like to put a caveat front and center. At least for now, these improvements don’t trickle down to low-income population groups that would benefit most from diet-related improvements.  

Before jumping in, I wanted to plug an exciting opportunity for entrepreneurs: Accelerate at VERGE applications are open until Aug. 13. We’re looking for startups Seed to Series B in energy, water infrastructure, carbon, food and mobility. Selected finalists will pitch in front of 10,000-plus leaders from the private and public sectors, utilities, solution providers, investors and other startups.

1. Nutrition security is gaining traction 

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Before we can overhaul an industry, we have to start thinking about old markets in new ways. Over the past couple of years and increasingly so during the pandemic, the conversation around food security has shifted towards a new concept called nutrition security. 

At first look, the standard definition of food security — to have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food — seems to cover all the essential aspects. But when evaluating how food security looks like in policies and food assistance programs, the nutrition aspect often falls short. Quantity, not quality, of food dominates reality. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, has been one of the most prominent leaders in this field. In Tufts’ coverage of one of his recent papers, he stresses:

‘Nutrition security’ incorporates all the aims of food security but with additional emphasis on the need for wholesome, healthful foods and drinks for all. COVID-19 has made clear that Americans who are most likely to be hungry are also at highest risk of diet-related diseases including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers — a harsh legacy of inequities and structural racism in our nation.

By reframing food security and putting nutrition front and center, Mozaffarian and others hope to achieve policy and food innovation that will offer foods enabling health, well-being and the prevention and treatment of disease in addition to combating hunger. 

2. More cooks and better groceries 

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The pandemic has also given consumers ample time to rediscover their relationship with food and form new habits. Whether out of necessity or pleasure, many people started cooking more at home and educating themselves on what healthy immunity-strengthening diets look like. Deloitte’s market research suggests that this trend will likely outlive the pandemic — 42 percent of consumers say they plan to continue cooking more food at home. 

Home cooking and temporary supermarket supply chain shortages have also strengthened decentralized and local supply chains. Direct-to-consumer models such as farmers’ markets, vegetable boxes from community-supported agriculture and home gardening have flourished during COVID-19. Deloitte’s data suggest that 29 percent of consumers intend to continue buying more fresh foods post-pandemic. 

These are encouraging news for innovative platforms trying to tap into these markets. MilkRun is an Oregon-based company that aggregates products from small farms in local hubs and delivers them directly to consumers. Their service launched in the Pacific Northwest and expanded to Austin over the past year. GrownBy is another app connecting farmers directly to consumers, increasing their profits by taking advantage of the COVID-related surge in online ordering. 

These new approaches have the potential to improve the health of consumers by bringing fresher, more nutritious products to their fridges while also strengthening food sovereignty. 

3.  Alternative proteins and indoor agriculture are thriving

The venture-capital-backed startup world has also been forging ahead with products at the nutrition and sustainability nexus over the past 18 months. Indoor farming that promises to bring more nutrient-dense products to consumers at a lower environmental cost has continued to grow during the pandemic. Similarly, the alternative protein sector has gained momentum. According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based meat, egg and dairy companies have together raised a staggering $2.2 billion in 2020, more than three times as much compared to 2019.

Two health-related developments in the alternative protein sector stand out to me. One is the continued iteration and improvement of established products such as Beyond Meat’s burgers. The company is planning to launch two new versions of its beef patties that will have between 35 to 55 percent less saturated fat than its beef equivalents. 

Another is the rise of a new generation of plant-based companies such as Nowadays that have health baked into their DNA. This San Francisco-based startup was founded during the pandemic. Within less than a year, it brought “clean-label” chicken nuggets to market that taste fantastic while only relying on seven ingredients and boosting a superior nutritional profile. As the industry map above shows, Nowadays is part of a thriving ecosystem working to improve personal health and nutrition security. 

The pandemic has also given consumers ample time to rediscover their relationship with food and form new habits.

A recent analysis by S2G Ventures, a multi-stage venture fund investing across food and agriculture supply chains, dives into how pandemics have historically led to structural shifts in the food and agriculture industry. “For consumers, the pandemic has pushed environmentalism from niche to mainstream which has enabled structural shifts in a very short amount of time,” Dan Ripma, senior associate at S2G, told me. He and his colleagues are advising their portfolio companies on how to adjust business tactics to these new frameworks. 

Policy innovation is required to scale entrepreneurial approaches for nutrition security, making them accessible to low-income communities that struggle with nutrition security and can’t afford premium products and services. Some developments in the U.S. such as the push for better quality and universal child nutrition programs and President Joe Biden’s backing of a $15 minimum wage for workers are a good start. But based on my read of the nutrition assistance programs that have been strengthened as part of COVID-relief packages, the government’s focus still overwhelmingly lies on emergency hunger relief. While this is a critical support for millions of people right now, it does little to build long-term community health.

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