Hunger-relief organization Feeding America estimated that the pandemic could cause 17 million more people could become food insecure , bringing the total of at-risk Americans to about 54 million. According to an NYU survey, 15% of households, and 18% of households with children, reported food insecurity during the early stage of the crisis. Meanwhile, nearly 40% of all food in America, amounting to about 108 billion pounds, goes to waste.
When tech startup Bento launched in March 2020, it was reacting to that heightening of hunger during COVID-19, aiming to connect the food surplus with the hungry. Now, armed with proof of impact from its its first year and a half, new partnerships, and data insights from its work with digital transformation firm Genpact, Bento is evolving to not only provide healthy and diet-specific meals to the hungry, but also unlocking access to other social support, all of which is giving its users the security to focus on their futures, rather than solely on worrying about their next meal.
Bento, a spinoff of Not Impossible Labs, a tech incubator that aims to solve problems that most would consider “impossible,” has so far delivered 200,000 meals using its SMS system, whereby food-insecure people who are served by Bento’s nonprofit partners can send a text and immediately get options for nearby restaurants or grocery stores with offerings of free meals. Bento works with nonprofits on one end to register participants, and food providers on the other, which distribute the same meals they serve paying customers. The restaurants don’t have change their workflow to provide the food and participants picking up food don’t feel the stigma often associated with getting a free meal.
Guarding people’s dignity is a key tenet for Bento. Governmental assistance programs like SNAP “don’t necessarily value that aspect of dignity as much as they possibly could,” says Susan Williams, the company’s director of communications. They can also be limiting in terms of what recipients get on their plates. In contrast, Bento wants to create a climate whereby people can comfortably declare their needs and preferences, receiving meals fit for diabetic, vegan, or gluten-free diets.
Its system is integrated with delivery services, like DoorDash and Postmates, to access menus, from which it curates items for participants based on price range and nutrition. “There’s infinite ways in which we can customize that,” Williams says. Genpact, its digital transformation partner, is collecting and analyzing real-time data, in part to help efficiently identify the most nutritional meals on a menu, and seamlessly bring them to the right participants. (Genpact began working with Bento as part of a partnership with Fast Company, after Bento was chosen from among our 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards honorees.)
In one example of this versatility of offerings, Bento received a grant from the Detroit Area Agency on Aging, a nonprofit that serves the elderly and their caregivers, in order to specifically support Muslim, Hispanic, and African-American residents. Before, the meals they were getting are not culturally or religiously appropriate, or palatable, so much so that the organization observed that people were opting out of receiving food at all. The partnership should provide a way to give them “that nutritional food support from restaurants that are actually appealing,” Williams says.
If people are getting good, nutritious food, it contributes to favorable health outcomes in general, which gives people the time and energy to think about other aspects of their lives and futures, rather than simply living from meal to meal. So, Bento now aims to think beyond the meal, and actively help to improve other conditions in people’s lives, connecting them to resources around housing, education, job training, and mental health. “We’re coming in as a food resource,” Williams says, but “our program flexes by design to meet those different criteria.”
In Memphis, Bento partnered with HIV/AIDS support organization, Friends For Life, to help people get back to the clinic to get reassessed, and continue to stay eligible for social services. Becky Roland, the charity’s nutrition manager, reported that four clients in one week re-enrolled in care after getting Bento’s text reminders. “This means they are seeing their doctors, taking their medications, and receiving food and other social support,” she said in a statement.
If nutritious food is the route to good health outcomes, Bento wants to prove that it is worth the investment for healthcare providers. Next year, it will roll out a pilot to provide evidence that there’s a cost benefit for the healthcare industry to create a reimbursement model for healthy food as a preventative measure—and that it will save money in the long run as chronic dietary conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, subside. Research supports that theory: the CDC reported that food-insecure adults increased annual healthcare expenditures by $687 million per state, while the AJPH found that reducing hunger lowered annual health-related expenses by $1,400 to $5,000 per person. Bento will also do a pilot with Medicaid, involving 3,500 program participants who are also food insecure.
“We’re really trying to be beyond-a-band-aid solution,” Williams says. “We’re really trying to show that there is a good business in being able to feed people and get them engaged—and hopefully move them from just surviving, to thriving.”