MIT Sloan Health Systems Initiative

Food Systems Innovator Highlights Urgent and Complex Challenges in the Food Value Chain

On April 28, HSI hosted the last lunchtime seminar of the 2021-2022 academic year. About a dozen participants, joined by an equal number online, attended to hear from Katie Stebbins, Executive Director of the Tufts Food and Nutrition Innovation Institute. This two-year old organization is a part of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. While some universities have nutrition departments, this is the only graduate school of nutrition in the country.

Stebbins is a systems thinker and environmental planner who has deep experience in entrepreneurship. She was Massachusetts’ first Secretary for Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship. With this background, she is uniquely qualified to lead an innovation organization focused on the highly complex food system that is greatly affected by environmental changes. 

Given the broad topic, Stebbins provided an overview of pressing issues of interest to the Innovation Institute, as well as insight into where MIT Sloan-trained thinkers could have great impact.

The Innovation Institute is home to a council of more than 90 companies who, for varying business reasons, are all interested the future of food and nutrition. Members represent a broad array of companies and organizations: non-profits, investors, food companies, retailers, supply chain innovators, supplement companies, health insurers, and nutrition innovators. The topics of greatest interest to this diverse group are:

  • Food as Medicine
  • Precision Nutrition
  • Sustainable Nutrition
  • Nutrition Security

One of the main drivers behind these research topics is the rapid increase in scientific knowledge of the human biome, “biohacking”, and artificial intelligence. “We are unlocking information about our bodies and have much more information than we had before,” Stebbins commented. Food as medicine is certainly not a new idea, nor is precision nutrition, but both topics have received much broader interest and good publicity of late. But, as Stebbins points out, “where is the evidence?” There are a lot of promises, but it is hard to know what is real, especially in the absence of standards.

One member of the Innovation Institute Council stepped up to supply some evidence. Ocean Spray voluntarily submitted a health claim application through an FDA process. They produced a scientific dossier regarding the benefit of cranberries for people who suffer from chronic bladder infections. In addition to Ocean Spray's study, the dossier consisted of evidence with different clinical trials conducted over a period of at least 15-20 years by other independent investigators. The FDA conducted their own evaluation as well. Twenty-three months after submission, the FDA granted the company the right to make that claim on their packaging.

This is a wonderful example. But it is only one. Currently, any individual must wade through a mountain of contradictory information, make the best guesses, and do personal testing to find out what works. And none of this is regularly covered by health insurance.

Stebbins also gave examples of new companies that are pushing the boundaries of science and public health. The company, Brightseed Bio, founded in 2017, is an AI-driven data company on a mission to identify the plant bioactives in food that advance human health. This is an example of bringing scientific rigor to the food-as-medicine bandwagon.

Commonwealth Kitchen is a non-profit that originally wanted to bring healthy food to communities that had been underserved or in food deserts. While that may have started as a food security idea, the organizers went beyond that standard to nutrition security. The point is not just calories, but nutritious calories that are also a good fit for the communities they serve.

Since its inception, Commonwealth Kitchen has branched out to several other programs that all speak to the same mission. One that commands much of the focus is helping residents of these communities become food business owners. Commonwealth Kitchen operates an incubator that offers business training, market access, access to networks and human capital to help people get their businesses up and running. Graduates of the incubator then return funding and resources to help the next new group of entrepreneurs.

Some of the businesses that were conceived and grown in the incubator now have a presence at MIT. Three of the restaurants, Bibim Box (Korean), Las Palmas (Dominican) and Las Carolinas (Venezuelan), are now options at the MIT Stratton Student Center food court.

Another food system disruptor is Fresh Food Generation. This company’s mission is to bring healthy food at affordable prices to local communities. They source as many ingredients as possible from local farms and support local bakeries. They spread the word and their terrific food through their food trucks, restaurant, catering and even ship globally.

Stebbins concluded her talk by posing questions that prompted a spirited discussion. These insightful points included:

What if we

  • Eliminated toxins from the food supply chain
  • Added diagnostics to screen for toxicity as a covered annual test- including genetic testing
  • Expanded nutrition science education in medical education
  • Increased spending on R&D to better support standards for Food as Medicine
  • Started treating the food system as a basic human need that requires equal access
  • Added broader social determinants of health to EHRs

Clearly the short answer to these questions is “great idea”, but as Stebbins pointed out there are significant barriers to making these a reality. Still, MIT students and researchers are experts in fields such as AI, chemistry, biology, nutrition, finance, public health and management, who could make headway in meeting these challenges. Stebbins concluded by inviting the audience to contact her to continue these discussions.