Hunger is not a new problem in the United States, but the Covid-19 pandemic, soaring inflation and sky-high grocery prices have helped highlight just how serious it is for many Americans.
More than 34 million people are considered food insecure, accounting for about 10% of the nation’s population according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Agrifood innovation, meanwhile, has finally entered mainstream dialogue, bringing a host of tech startups and investors with it. While some efforts already extend this innovation to food security, (see Shipt’s integration of SNAP benefits), the area is ripe for tech solutions that can make healthy food more accessible to those 34 million people in need.
“After talking with experts in food security, technology, government and healthcare, we formed a thesis that centered on the need for a new category of technology to be developed – one we named HungerTech,” says AgriNovus president and CEO Mitch Frazier.
AgriNovus originally came to the idea while researching the breakdown of the Indiana food system during the pandemic.
“The researchers noted in passing that the future of food security will be driven more by connectivity than proximity. This led us to begin digging into how that reality could materialize and how we might get to the future faster and better connect food supply with food demand.”
Leveraging the power of many
Initially launched in 2022, the HungerTech Innovation Challenge is a four-week-long accelerator program that supports startups, entrepreneurs, students and major companies as they create tech-enabled businesses specifically focused on connecting food-insecure communities with for-profit and nonprofit food networks.
One such group of entrepreneurs is GreenBasket, an Indianapolis-based team made up of several students from Indiana University and Purdue University that won the 2023 HungerTech challenge for its CropSpots app.
CropSpots was designed to get healthy food to communities with low food access by leveraging a group-buying model with direct purchase from farmers.
Rather than facilitate grocery deliveries to individual homes, CropSpots uses a “click and collect” model where multiple households in a community can place an order together, share the delivery fee, and retrieve their food from a centralized location such as a school or church.
Customers can shop, order and pay through the app, which accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) credits in addition to other forms of digital payment.
“We figured the group delivery system would be a good solution to having people reduce the cost of their travel from where they are to where these pickup spots are, especially for the snap eligible families,” says GreenBasket’s Drishti Dinesh Jogadia. “Having a community where someone can order with their neighbor or three other neighbors, and one of them can go pick up the food, will reduce not just time but also the delivery cost for multiple families.”
Cost is a major pain point for many households. Citing data from Harvard, GreenBasket notes that the average family of four using SNAP benefits spends $63.9 on groceries; shifting to a healthy diet would add an additional $42 to the existing cost.
Moreover, food delivery from services like Instacart only makes sense in densely populated areas. In Indiana, 67% of food-insecure neighbors are in outer, more rural communities.
“We understood that affordability was one of the main problems for [getting] nutritious food, and this has been evident throughout all the research AgriNovus has conducted,” says GreenBasket team member Shreyas Patel. “It has consistently come out that affordability and accessibility are the top two contributors.”
Frazier adds a litany of other possible issues food-insecure households face around affordability and accessibility:
“Resources are often disconnected, and operating models to connect food supply with food demand aren’t well integrated. For example, a pilot authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill enables SNAP recipients to use SNAP dollars to purchase food online, yet many face access challenges and are prohibited from using SNAP funds to pay for delivery. While many food pantries can deliver food, they cannot accept SNAP.”
He adds that many households served by SNAP are eligible for no-cost smartphones, and that households surveyed by AgriNovus identified mobile phones as their preferred method of accessing the internet.
“However, there remains no digital conduit to serve those facing food insecurity,” he adds.
Advancing hungertech across the food system
As part of winning the challenge, GreenBasket was awarded $25,000 to advance its product.
Jogadia says the group will focus on research and onboarding more users to test and improve the product in the immediate future.
Other winners of the HungerTech 2023 challenge include South Bend, Indiana-based Cultivate Food Rescue, which took a runner-up prize of $5,000 for its ShelfLife platform. ShelfLife connects upstream food suppliers with food donors (e.g., a food pantry).
Bloomington, Indiana-based Civic Champs won the HungerTech 2022 for its mobile app that enables SNAP users to purchase from participating grocers and get food delivered to their homes free of charge.
KLaunch and BlueSky Commerce, meanwhile, followed up their participation in the 2022 HungerTech challenge with the launch of FoodBridge, an e-commerce platform for food banks.
While AgriNovus has wrapped two full editions of the HungerTech Innovation Challenge and plans on more in the future, the concept of using technology to end hunger goes far beyond a single accelerator program, says Frazier.
“Much like fintech, martech and others, we believed and continue to believe that there is a category of technology that needs to be created to connect food supply with food demand; one that bridges both for-profit and nonprofit food systems,” he notes.
“We created the HungerTech Innovation Challenge to prove that thesis, and it’s becoming reality. Since launching in 2022 with the support of Elevance Health, we have already witnessed the creation of two companies and have inspired dozens of innovators to tackle the challenges of tech-enabled food security.”