By Tom Still
MILWAUKEE — A blend of old and new can be found in Milwaukee’s “Food for Health” enterprise.
The old is seen and heard in its remodeled headquarters, which at one time was a furniture store and still has the creaky wooden floors to prove it. The non-profit company is also a legacy of a company line started by Frederick Dohmen, who immigrated from Germany to Wisconsin, in the 1850s.
What’s new is how the Dohmen Company Foundation, a non-profit descendent of the for-profit firm, has invested in dramatically changing how Americans view the connection between food and health.
“The standard American, processed diet is now the number one risk for death in our country,” said Rachel Roller, president and chief executive officer of the Dohmen Family Foundation, which supports Food for Health. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Roller and others who spoke at a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council explained how what Americans eat is linked to much greater prevalence of conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Two out of three adult Americans are obese, she said, and the numbers are beginning to soar for children.
So, what can be done about it? The approach embraced by Dohmen and Food for Health seems simple enough: Make healthy eating ubiquitous and make access to an overall healthier life easy, efficient and effective. The reality is more complicated.
Using money from forty-two Dohmen shareholders (the legacy company sold its health science business in 2018), the foundation pivoted into a “food is medicine” approach that is in line with national efforts to reduce hunger while changing fast-food, processed habits. It is using some classic business strategies to do so.
The foundation announced the launch of the Dohmen Impact Investment Fund at the White House in March. It is a $60-million, mid-stage venture capital fund with a social benefit strategy aimed at affecting 5 million consumers over the next five to 10 years.
The fund will intentionally accept below-average returns to pursue that goal. That doesn’t mean zero returns, however, as it will invest in five to 10 “proven food solutions” with established business-to-business and consumer markets. Deal size would range between $5 million to $10 million.
By definition, then, it’s not an early stage fund that would invest smaller amounts in healthy food startups in Wisconsin or elsewhere. The reason is that foundation leaders see the road to maturity in such deals as longer and riskier.
Food for Health is a charity that will provide fresh, “medically tailored” meals, coaching and education to “disadvantaged populations.” Its location in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district speaks to that goal. The related Food Benefit Co. contracts with businesses in southern Wisconsin to provide fresh food for employees, along with coaching and health screening.
The combination is all about changing attitudes and diets over time through other local outlets and national education efforts.
America’s eating habits didn’t devolve overnight, however. For cultural reasons, time constraints and more, what people eat reflects their lifestyle. It’s much easier to pull into the nearest fast-food restaurant for a cheeseburger and fries for the road than to find a healthy salad you’re likely to spill on your lap.
Americans don’t take well to being told what to do, either. If there is a flaw in the foundation’s well-intended approach, it is that some people could take some of it as preaching — “Expose the truth” is one stated goal — versus an attempt to advise and consult.
Still, there’s no denying that poor eating habits can lead to health problems for many people, especially those who might not believe they have the information or resources to do otherwise.
Food is medicine in some important chemical and biological ways, even having the power to alter genetic expressions for the better. Helping people understand and act on that fact is why the Dohmen Company Foundation has taken on an ambitious goal and put serious money behind it.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.