In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?
In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Demir Vangelov from Soylent.
Demir Vangelov is CEO of Soylent, the original food tech company, which has made it its mission to make complete, sustainable nutrition accessible, appealing and affordable to all. When the founders of Soylent met in Silicon Valley (2013) working as software engineers they were not only thinking about how to feed themselves, but they were also thinking about how to feed a growing population. Soylent was born out of the desire to make sure there were sustainable products being made to feed everyone!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
After serving for nearly two years as Soylent’s CFO & COO, I assumed the CEO position at the beginning of 2020. Since then, I have built on my previous experience to lead Soylent through product optimizations and strategy updates while refocusing our efforts on growing our customer base — by acquiring new consumers while actively supporting our current users. We are also making sure that we create products that people want and can integrate into their daily lives. So far, I’m happy with our progress, and the company is doing better than ever.
Previously, I was the first CFO and COO of Califia Farms. My focus there was on supporting Califia’s expansion into North-American and international retail, growing its manufacturing capabilities and setting up its end-to-end global supply chain.
Soylent started with the basic idea that complete nutrition shouldn’t be difficult or expensive. Our co-founders met in 2013, working under the same roof and eating the same diet of frozen dinners and ramen noodles. After a lot of frustrating meals, they developed Soylent as an experiment. Their hypothesis: food can be simplified for the better. They were software engineers, after all, so they wanted to engineer better food for themselves.
What started as a simple pouch of powdered food has become so much more. Our portfolio of products now includes drinks and bars, in addition to powders.
We continue to live our mission every day — making complete nutrition accessible, appealing and affordable to all. We take this very seriously and when we say all, we mean it. We know there are people in every community that cannot afford healthy food or are food insecure. In order to make sure they have access to complete nutrition, we have developed our #SoylentForGood program that has donated millions of meals to date and supports our effort in helping consumers make healthier nutritional choices every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I was a student, I personally struggled to find and afford healthy food. After I joined Soylent, this became an issue that I have learned more about and that has shaped how I think about corporate impact and responsibility.
There have been college students who have struggled to balance paying for tuition, housing and meals for decades, but the problem is getting worse. In 2018, the issue of College Food Insecurity came to light for us through research conducted by Dr. Sara Goldrick- Rab. The data in this study (the largest of its kind) showed that 36% of university students and 42% of community college students were food insecure (and these numbers have only grown since the start of the pandemic). This is a staggering number and it got our attention. This is different from being a college student who skipped breakfast and finds their stomach growling in the library. Food insecurity is about the lack of resources to satisfy your physical hunger. This is a much deeper and more systemic problem.
We are working on the issue of college food insecurity in a variety of ways. We work with food pantries and food banks across the country that provide food directly to students in need. We have also partnered with an incredible LA-based organization, Swipe Out Hunger, which now serves students in every state in the US and helps students donate unused meal swipes to other students in need. Lastly, we keep the price of our powder meal replacement so low that students can afford a healthy, nutritious, quick meal and don’t have to resort to the notorious cup noodle or easy mac.
As a result of these efforts, our #SoylentForGood program has donated more than 5 million meals to date (5,125,004 meals to be exact), and this is something we are very proud of.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Before coming to Soylent, I worked at Califia Farms, a plant-based pioneer and industry leader in scaling plant-based products to a mass market. In that role, I worked closely with Greg Steltenpohl, Califia’s founder, who built the company from the ground up and pushed the plant-based movement forward by leaps and bounds. Working with Greg, I grew my knowledge of plant-based product development, consumer insights, and profitable manufacturing and supply chain. This was critical to my personal growth, but also to the success that Soylent now enjoys because I was able to implement learnings from an industry-leading founder on how to redefine a category and manage rapid growth.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Leaders that I admire and work to emulate all have three characteristics — they are mission-driven, operationally successful, and they all work hard along strong, diverse teams. These are goals I work towards every day.
Our mission is at the core of my daily decision-making; I consider the impact our products have on individual people’s health, how our supply chain impacts the planet, and how we can truly live up to our commitment of reducing trade-offs between positive impact, taste, accessibility and cost.
Of course, in order to be able to live our mission, we must be operationally (and financially) successful. There are many companies that focus on mission and impact but are not building viable business models that can actually help them achieve those goals in the long term. I don’t want to build this kind of business or impact. I think about how successful, profitable businesses can grow and in turn create more and more impact over time. This is critical, in my opinion.
Lastly, as a leader, if you are not taking the time to cultivate, challenge and grow a team of diverse thinkers then you aren’t doing your job. I believe in creating workspaces where people are free to challenge and be challenged but are also free to be themselves and bring their ideas, personalities and thoughts to the table every day. I want to work in an environment where my team feels comfortable challenging my opinions and knowing that they will be listened to. I believe when you create this type of environment — whether it be in person or remote — then you cultivate a culture of transparency and authenticity, and that is always my goal.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am sure there is some great quote about this somewhere, but instead of a quote I have a leadership principle that I try to live by every day and that is to not only lead the team but to work alongside them. Successful leaders that I have seen throughout my career are ones that don’t just delegate tasks but are also personally involved, truly understand their business and are able to do the heavy lifting along with their teams. On the flip side, I have seen a number of people in leadership roles fail as leaders because they didn’t jump in or couldn’t jump in when needed.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?
Americans have a love-love relationship with food — we love making it, eating it, taking pictures of it. Even look at “readymade foods.” We’re talking donuts, frozen meals, that kind of stuff. America’s cozy relationship with food is complicated. Nearly 60% of the Western diet is made up of cheap, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. You know the kind: microwavable dinners, snacks that leave orange dust on your fingers, fast food with strange names.
Americans have no issues with accessing cheap calories. That changes if you try to access healthy foods rather than just calories. That’s when accessibility and cost start to become a challenge. “Healthy” or nutrient-dense diets tend to be more expensive, less available and thus making them cost-prohibitive for many. While the health issues of the Western diet affect people across many social groups, people from low and middle-income communities are disproportionately affected by both malnutrition and obesity-related issues such as diabetes and heart disease. It’s what the World Health Organization refers to as the “double burden of malnutrition.”
Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?
- It’s hard to constantly count calories, nutrients and everything else in our food. And it’s also really hard to resist stuff that tastes good, but may not be great for your health. So, most people consume more calories than they need to maintain their weight. Nearly 72% of the US population struggles with being overweight, the average American eats 3,600 calories a day, yet 1 in 3 Americans are at risk for nutrient deficiencies. So people have access to enough calories, just not the nutrient-rich ones. This is different than in the developing world where people don’t have access to enough calories altogether.
- Steady physical access to healthier foods in “food deserts” is another piece of the puzzle. Multiple studies have found that people living in low-income urban and rural areas have access to fewer grocery stores and have to travel farther to get food, thus experiencing “food deserts” and other areas that lack access to adequate nutrition. All of this is to say, a balanced diet isn’t easy to come by. Proper access and financial means are needed to navigate buying/eating healthier foods vs the cheaper/less-healthy foods.
- The lack of macronutrients–protein, vitamins and fiber–is an example of a major concern created by a food desert. From 2013 to 2016, about one in three adults in the US ate fast food on any given day. And while fast food can be delicious, it’s no wonder that Americans typically consume too few servings of fruits, vegetables, fiber and so-called “good” fats like omega-3s.
Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?
In post-war America, the focus was on efficient food production and cheap calories. However, less expensive foods are usually also less healthy and nutritious. Research has found that switching to a healthier diet costs at a minimum $1.50 more per person, per day, than an unhealthy diet. And that adds up — it’s an extra $550 or more per year, per person ($2,200 or more for a typical family). For many people, higher food costs and inconsistent cash flow can lead to a cycle of food restriction and then filling up on nutritionally poor foods. These dietary patterns are exacerbated among lower-income populations, who are more likely to lack access to healthy food options and often struggle with obesity and nutrient deficiencies.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Soylent creates a range of affordable products that support complete nutrition. Soylent ready-to-drink shakes provide all the nutrients our bodies need while supporting sustainable agriculture. Our powders have all the benefits of our bottled shakes but at a cost of only $1.57 per meal. Many powders that claim to replace a meal typically have around 150/200 calories per serving and do not include all FDA recommended nutrients. Following Soylent’s guidelines, consumers get a complete meal supplying all macro and micronutrients to support a healthy diet that includes needed vitamins and minerals.
As I mentioned before, giving back has been a part of the company since the beginning. Soylent has donated our products to food banks, pantries, homeless shelters, disaster relief organizations and hospitals. However, our giving back goes far beyond the donation of products. We also provide financial support, volunteer hours, policy recommendations, office equipment and many other resources to the non-profits we work with. Lastly, we spend significant efforts on consumer education — we believe access to information is a critical component of a healthy diet.
Over the years, Soylent has expanded our impact and philanthropic programs, developing what is now known as #SoylentForGood which covers our efforts as described above.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I love where the plant-based industry is right now. The amount of creative ideas and product innovation that we have seen in the past few years is simply astonishing! It is also great to see how this growth and diversity is driven by smaller players who I believe are making the food ecosystem more versatile and stronger for the long run. The challenges with healthy nutrition at scale are enormous, and I cheer, admire and support everyone who is using their talent, energy and efforts to move the plant-based movement forward.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
First, I want to remind both businesses and consumers that change and impact don’t have to be all or nothing. I believe in the power of incrementality and not trying to convince millions of consumers to change their habits overnight. In my view, it is about making change easier, more enjoyable and more accessible. Small steps by many can make a huge difference over time.
My next recommendation is that businesses can understand the responsibility and impact of consumer education. We must continue to educate ourselves on nutritional topics, dietary challenges and ways to create change — then we must share these learnings in meaningful and digestible ways with our consumers, our stakeholders, our retail partners. Through education, we can amplify our impact.
My third note is something I mentioned before — a business has to be stable and successful in order to have an impact. Impact and business success can not operate independently of each other. However, building impact into the success of the business creates the ability to reach both goals at the same time. Success without impact could feel empty, but impact without success is not sustainable.
Lastly, relationships–real relationships–matter. Building long-term relationships with great partners who share your vision for impact and success are critical. This can be business suppliers, business leaders, stakeholders and non-profit organizations. Your consumers can see through marketing stunts with one-time partners or celebrities. Consumers are even more attuned to companies that try to capitalize on one-off events, think of all the posts on Earth Day. So long-term business relationships matter, which in turn grow longer-lasting and higher-quality relationships with consumers.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
In our work around access to nutrition, we center our partnerships and work around the consumer. Then we work back via our relationships to help us. We collaborate with our supply chain partners to get products directly to people’s homes at an affordable price, which is no small task, so shout out to all of our partners that work in logistics, supply, shipping and fulfillment.
When we think about how to get nutrition to people who don’t have the ability to pay for food or may not even have a home to deliver it to, we work with non-profit partners that help us get food into the hands of those who need it. In this area we give a huge shout out to the Midnight Mission who have helped people experiencing homeless in Skid Row in Los Angeles have access to nutrition, Swipe Out Hunger who work to help college students who are struggling with food insecurity access nutrition, and also food banks across the country who provide nutrition to thousands of people through their network of food pantries, hot meal programs, and senior and student programs.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Being a lawmaker is no easy task, or so I hear. As a business leader, I don’t profess to know about the intricacies of that work or world. However, I do believe that if lawmakers worked more closely with businesses, shared and asked for ideas and insights, we could support each other’s goals even better.
In the food business, we know a lot about nutrition, how to get to people who want and need it, and how to do so efficiently. At Soylent, we also know about how to ensure that price stays low and accessible. I wish there was a better forum, other than hiring a lobbyist, for business leaders to be able to share these types of insights and learnings directly with lawmakers, and vice versa. If there were more opportunities for politicians to tap into business insights as it pertains to food, agriculture, and reducing food insecurity then they could gain in their efficiency and expediency that could work synergistically with government actions. So this is not a legislation recommendation, but I do wish we could create a better system for information and data sharing and focus on real needs.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The way we feed the world has to change. We already have issues with lack of access to nutrition, but if we keep the status quo, it will get worse. I believe that Soylent, and companies like ours, rooted in science and technology, can demonstrate by example key solutions for how to feed 10 billion people by 2050.
I believe that in 10 years, several things will need to change in order to create a road map for the future of the food supply chain.
First, label transparency — consumers will continue to build on their understanding that a longer label isn’t necessarily bad. There are many nutrients that are necessary for our health. They all have scientific names, we call them chemical compounds, however, many consumers don’t fully understand their function. Hence the need for label transparency and nutritional education at the product level.
Next, people will continue to be more comfortable with what processed food means. Science tells you that certain ingredients have a function; others are not good for you, so we use specific processes to improve our food. Think of gluten-free or lactose-free foods that have been processed to gain a beneficial function. By focusing on science rather than fads, we will be able to show the nutrients that our bodies need and we will create products that are good for you and that deliver the most benefits.
The last big step in nutrition will be what I call the movement from “no-kill” to “no-till”. There are already food tech companies that have figured out how to create food and nutrition without the need to kill animals or to ever have to even plow the land in a traditional sense. This effort will accelerate. I believe it will create an opportunity for large-scale food production focusing on health benefits, higher efficiency, and a very much improved carbon footprint.
Please check out the Soylent Impact site at Impact.Soylent.com
Visit Demir's LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/demirvangelov