Medium: Food Deserts – Howard Schiffer of Vitamin Angels On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

Medium: Food Deserts – Howard Schiffer of Vitamin Angels On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

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 Howard Schiffer, Founder & President of Vitamin Angels.

Howard Schiffer is the Founder and President of the global public health nonprofit, Vitamin Angels, which took on a major public health challenge when it started in 1994: to eliminate vitamin A deficiency in children under 5, which can lead to illness, blindness, and even death. In 2018, Schiffer announced a new goal for the organization: to eliminate infant mortality surrounding childbirth due to vitamin deficiency diseases by the year 2030. Today, Vitamin Angels provides life-changing vitamins to 60 million underserved mothers and children in more than 65 countries, including all 50 states in the U.S.

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?

I was a lay midwife in my early twenties and really got to understand the importance of maternal nutrition. This led me to the natural products industry. When I was thirty, I ended up getting blood poisoning and almost died. I was in a coma for ten days and came out of that seeing how fragile life could be, that the thread connecting you to this world could snap at any moment, and that I needed to do something really important with my life. By my forties I had a business in the natural products space but after fourteen years I had lost the passion. I heard a quote from Mark Twain that said, ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why’. Then in 1994 there was an earthquake in Southern California, the vitamin company I owned got a call from a relief agency needing vitamins and Vitamin Angels was born. I had found my ‘why’. Twenty-seven years later, Vitamin Angels has grown into a global organization that reaches nearly 60 million undernourished pregnant women and children in over 65 countries, including the U.S., with essential vitamins and minerals.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

My most interesting story is that I started Vitamin Angels one year before my youngest daughter was born, so she really got to grow up hearing about Vitamin Angels work and seeing the photos and videos I’d bring back from the field. Eventually she got to come out into the field with me to see the work for herself. Last year she started a graduate program for Nurse-Midwifery just as we were ramping up our Global Prenatal Campaign, to improve birth outcomes for women all around the world. Watching how connected our lives have become is something I never could have imagined.

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?

In 2004 we began a major partnership with a large pharmaceutical and CPG company. The person I originally worked with there got really excited about our work and asked me to look into tremendously expanding our work throughout Asia. I did and found a huge opportunity where we’d be able to expand our reach to over thirty million children (a big jump from the four million we were then reaching). Just when we were ready to move forward, my contact left, and a new young public health doctor came in to take his place and immediately nixed the whole plan. I was so angry, and I swore this would never happen again. This led me to expanding our Board and really broadening our donor base. Within ten years we had passed reaching thirty million children!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My friend Jeff who after selling a very successful food distribution business, called me in 2003 and offered to help me run Vitamin Angels. We were still broke then and no one was getting paid. Jeff was the one who would always talk me off my ledge after I’d have another sleepless night worrying about how we were going to pay our bills. One time a very large humanitarian organization that I had been working on starting a partnership with, pushed us to send their first shipment of the product we were donating to them by air freight. It was all because they had delayed getting back to me. What should have cost around $25,000 by ocean freight, was now going to cost $75,000 by air. This was almost all of the money in our bank account. I was so mad and called Jeff up saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ He said, ‘We have to do it’ and then reminded me of all the kids we’d be reaching. He also offered to loan Vitamin Angels money if we needed it. We ended up not needing it and this humanitarian organization is still with us today and one of our largest global partners.

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?

Perseverance and determination are first. I didn’t get paid by Vitamin Angels for ten years and learned so much about keeping an organization going with scant resources.

Passion is next. We didn’t have money to hire a big celebrity to tout our cause, but everyone who met us or came into the field with us knew we were all in. People are drawn to folks who are passionate about their work. This is how we found many of our key people and major donors.

Authenticity is also key. People knew I was real, that I went out into the field five to eight times a year to be with the children and women we were serving. And that everyone who worked at Vitamin Angels whether in Programs or Marketing or IT or HR or Development, also went out in the field to meet the women and children too, so our work was really alive in each of us.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was in Guatemala, I was in a small village and met a mom named Carolina. I was talking to her, and I asked, ‘If your children get sick in the village, do other women come to help you out’. She looked at me and immediately said, ‘Si, El mal de uno es el mal de todos’ (If one is sick, they’re all sick). During these times when we profoundly realize our interconnectedness and see how an outbreak in China can change our lives; it’s a chance to realize our connection. And yes, we all have to take care of each other, and we all need to get healthy together.

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?

Food deserts are geographic areas where residents have limited access to convenient options for securing affordable and nutritious foods — especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts are disproportionately found in low-income neighborhoods and communities. Those who live in urban and rural low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have access to supermarkets or grocery stores that provide healthy food choices.

There is discussion around changing ‘food desert’ terminology to better describe food access in low-income and low-access areas. Some communities and researchers have used the term ‘Healthy Food Priority Areas’ (HFPAs) instead of ‘food desert’. Personally, I like food desert because it gets right down to how unequal food choices are in our country.

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?

Food store availability may determine the quality of food consumed by residents. Without access to grocery stores, convenience stores and/or fast-food restaurants may be a main source of food for residents. Convenience stores and fast-food restaurants have many foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients, which can have a negative impact on health. Populations with a chronic lack of access to adequate food resources are likely to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Food and good nutrition is what helps build a healthy immune system. There are multiple reasons why COVID hit the Black and Latinx communities hardest, or why Black women and babies have a three times higher mortality rate during pregnancy and childbirth than white women and babies. It isn’t the only reason, but nutrition plays a vital role.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

Some of the factors that allow food deserts to exist are connected to social and systemic issues related to inequality (such as racial discrimination and poverty). Grocery stores may relocate from urban to suburban areas and divest in low-income neighborhoods.

Other factors suggest that food deserts are a symptom of broader supply and demand economics. Grocery stores that carry the healthiest food are also oftentimes the most expensive. Consequently, grocery stores tend to focus their business in areas of higher wealth, where residents can afford more expensive goods. Low-income neighborhoods are left with inexpensive, packaged and highly processed food choices, junk food and fast food devoid of significant nutritional value. Simply put ‘unhealthy food’.

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?

At Vitamin Angels, we believe that every mother deserves a healthy pregnancy, and every child deserves a chance at a healthy life. However, many women in the U.S. experience low socio-economic status, marginalization, sub-optimal housing and transportation, lack of health insurance and live in food deserts. All of these factors can have a negative impact on health, especially during pregnancy.

Vitamin Angels has over 350 program partners in every U.S. state helping to reach underserved pregnant women with the prenatal vitamins and minerals they need to have a healthy pregnancy. Our program partners include local organizations like Community Health Centers, Public Health Departments, and Free Clinics. Currently, we are reaching 20% (about 246K) of pregnant women in the U.S. who have limited access to prenatal vitamins and minerals.

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’m really proud of and inspired by the women and families we work with who despite living in tenuous conditions do everything possible to help give their children a healthy life. They will walk for hours in the early morning to get their children to one of our vitamin distributions because they know what a difference our vitamins can make. That we can play a small role in helping their babies and children be healthy is an incredible gift.

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.

  • Acknowledge that racism is the root of social injustice and health inequities.
  • Create job programs for black, latinx, people of color and indigenous communities, so that these people have the resources to make healthier food decisions.
  • Provide the financial incentives and tax breaks, the same that cities do to build a stadium for a professional sports team, to bring grocery and natural food chains into these communities.
  • Get a school garden program like Alice Waters has done in Berkeley, at every public school, so the kids can grow their own food and learn about nutritious food.
  • Build communities gardens in all inner cities, so people can be able to feed themselves!

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?

Simple things like the school lunch program and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can have a major impact of providing a certain level of nutrition to resource poor communities. Vitamin Angels has a similar supplementary feeding program that we have piloted in the UK and US that can bring nutritious fruits and vegetable to low-income preschools and day nurseries. What impresses me about our program is that it is targeted to exactly the right children, it’s easy to implement, and can have a major impact. It is also very scalable with the right support. What I like about the program is that we’re helping to support existing infrastructure with the resources they need.

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?

My belief has always been that everyone has a right to basic nutrition. That should be a law. That one of the richest countries in the world can have children who go to sleep hungry every night is just wrong. It’s a question of priorities and commitment. Any program that can support communities that have been marginalized with the resources to build their own food distribution networks and local farmers markets would be a step in the right direction.

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. 😊

Vitamin Angels is focused on reaching the most vulnerable people on our planet (women and children) during the most vulnerable time in their lives (during pregnancy and from conception to five years old). As Vitamin Angels has said, ‘Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies, Better World!’ It’s pretty simple

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊

I would like to share a meal with the mothers and children we are serving. They are my heroes and the ones I most enjoy spending time with.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit the Vitamin Angels website,, or connect with Vitamin Angels on social media:

Instagram: @vitaminangels





This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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