Through Social Entrepreneurship

The demand for nutritional products and services increasingly attracts the attention of businesses in the United States. Investors are on the prowl to reach new consumers and explore emerging markets, while engaging nutrition stakeholders. The response has begun to include social innovation and sustainability into fundamental corporate strategies and supply chains.

Unfortunately, the inner city areas of the City of Lynchburg lack sustainable nutrition-based businesses. One of the consequences of this—food deserts. A food desert is an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. They are commonly located in lower-income neighborhoods and communities.

Nearly 39,000 of Lynchburg’s residents live within a food desert. At the same time, chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are at an all-time high in Lynchburg. Combining high quality, evidence-based nutrition interventions with social enterprise business models may be the solution needed to accelerate the progress of equitable nutritional opportunities in Lynchburg.

The Conflict

The great conundrum is that modern food industry businesses have objectives that may conflict with those of the public health sector, especially when it comes to diet-related chronic diseases. Jeanell Smith is the Senior Family Nutrition Program Assistant, Adult SNAP-Ed, for the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Lynchburg. She is also a member of the up-and-coming nutrition intervention, The Oasis Project—a community grocery store working to fill the void of daily fresh food access for those who need it most in downtown Lynchburg’s food desert.

She comments on the issue of conflicting objectives between businesses and public health, “Yes, we are all up against strong powers of advertising and a full coffer to further promote not only unhealthy foods, but to promote the continued untruthful marketing of products that claim to be ‘healthy.’ Step one is equitable availability, but there must also be education of the importance of these food items, not only the nutritional value and benefits, but how to select and prepare [them]. A high percentage of our health is determined by what we choose to put into our mouths.”

Centra Health conducted a 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment within the Central Virginia area. Results showed that the obesity rate within Centra’s service area, including Lynchburg, is 32% compared to 22% of adults in the Commonwealth. Without transportation to the nearest supermarkets, 20% of adults use a dollar store, 12% use food banks and 11% use convenience stores for their daily food diet.

The Possible Solution?

Currently, The Oasis Project is inviting business partners to take part and/or support the project through funding and physical resources, illustrating a great example of a social enterprise, also known as social entrepreneurship. According to the Nutrition Entrepreneurs Journal, the primary driver for a nonprofit is social value. On the other end of the spectrum, the primary driver for a business is financial value. Social enterprises fall in the middle of the charity-business continuum. They aim to attain both social impact and financial return. Social enterprises apply business solutions to social problems. Likewise, business activities overlap with the social programs.

Good Food Markets, located in Washington, DC, is a prime example of a successful nutrition-based social enterprise. The enterprise, although community focused and supported by public and nonprofit partners, had an approach of growing the local economy. It created its own market and achieved social impact coupled with financial return. It thrived in areas where other big name traditional retailers could not.

The Benefits

Social entrepreneurship can turn passion into profit. It normally does not work within the confines of a typical corporate setup or private firm. Essentially, social entrepreneurships offer flexibility in the working environment. Enterprise creates local jobs and can improve the economic wellbeing of the community. Employment can target a specific workgroup with both short-term and long-term opportunity. In the case of The Oasis Project, management will recruit community members living within food deserts to staff the community grocery store. By integrating nutrition into these social enterprise models, nutritional impact can be accelerated and economic well-being achieved.

Moreover, social enterprises are surprisingly cost-effective, which means the partners make money and save money in other ways. The solutions offered, whether in the form of product or services, are actually reasonable to the community. Lastly, marketing and promotion is generally easy since the enterprise addresses the social problem with a solution that attracts attention from the community and media.

Concluding Thoughts

Successful and sustainable social enterprises serving large communities, such as Good Food Markets in Washington DC, play a vital role to accelerate nutrition progress, affordability, and community empowerment. Lynchburg is in great need of business organizations that make corporate social responsibility a part of their business models. By moving into this direction, we could potentially remove food deserts from the Lynchburg map.