By Demi Radeva
During this year’s annual HLTH conference in Boston, I had the opportunity to speak with Ashley Tyrner, the founder and CEO of FarmboxRx and Farmbox Direct. The Farmbox brand aims to eradicate America’s food desert problem and promote “food as medicine” to help combat social determinants of health.
What is a saying, quote or phrase that motivates you?
“Food is political.” – Michelle Obama (The goal is for someone to make it not political.)
What advice do you have for other innovators?
You have to have very thick skin. And I like to say, you have to be like a rhinoceros because they, literally, cannot look back.
What is a book that has impacted you?
Rhinoceros Success: the Secret to Charging Full Speed Toward Every Opportunity by Scott Alexander.
What is a piece of technology that makes your life easier?
Instacart! Being a busy mom and professional, it helps me take care of my family.
What is a space in healthcare that isn’t getting much attention but should?
Food as medicine. It is just such a simple way of thinking – the focus being on treating the actual source of the problem rather than adding a pharmaceutical, and then another pharmaceutical– and then to fix a side effect, yet another. I am so shocked that no one has come in and disrupted this space yet, but it’s definitely the right time. We’re at a point where you know our healthcare system can’t continue on.
What led to the creation of FarmboxRx?
There is an estimated $53 billion spent every year on chronic diet-related conditions in America, and the simplest answer is food. You have an issue of accessibility, but once you have solved for access, you still need to motivate the user, you need to educate them on how to use the food, etc.
Take Peloton for example. Stationary bikes have been around for a really long time, but it wasn’t until we put a big screen on the front of it with content that motivated individuals to actually use it. Peloton is a stationary bike with sexy workout content. FarmboxRx uses that same concept.
With FarmboxRx, you get a box that’s curated around your chronic condition. For example, we have health plans that come to us and request boxes for their members who have rheumatoid arthritis or osteo-arthritis issues, and therefore want an anti-inflammatory box. So we take out nightshades. For Type 1 diabetics, certain medications don’t allow for a diet with avocados or starchy vegetables.
Other considerations include ethnic cuisines. We work with a health plan in California, and 92% of the population they serve is Asian. The membership needs to recognize the produce and want to use it.
Food insecurity is a national problem; it spans from coast to coast. There are 24 million Americans who live in a food desert. Half of that number is considered low income and using government SNAP, WIC, EBT dollars.
If we focus on the senior population (65+), we realize just how food insecure they are. Many may live across the street from a grocery store, but the journey to get there and back is too far. So they are food insecure even though they don’t live in a food desert. We figured out how to solve for this at the national level through produce shipping, even to the most remote areas.
After getting the food there, the next step is to motivate these individuals to want to cook and eat this food. And that’s where the Peloton example comes into play. In each box, we provide curated content, and there is more content on our website that can be accessed through a member portal. There are videos and demos on how to prepare a variety of recipes, so the user can see how it’s done.
Ultimately, it is about taking simple steps to create long-term effects. If you are eating healthy, but your mental health is not good, it doesn’t matter. If you’re eating healthy, but you are not getting off the couch or out of the chair at all, it’s not going to matter. You need all three pieces.
We excite the user to get up, walk down the block and back today. Then next week, they walk to the next block and back. It is the little steps to get people to achieve their long-term goals.
For example, every January people are super motivated. They are taking supplements and going to the gym, and then by February nobody’s doing anything, because they have done too much, too quickly. We need to do little things over time to make long-lasting changes.
What types of populations are you serving?
Chronic conditions are a big focus for us. You can make changes to your nutrition, and you can reverse your condition even, but people don’t learn this when they go to the doctor. The physicians rush through the process and put you on medication instead.
My ultimate idea is when you go to the doctor and find out you are a Type 2 diabetic that the physician says: “Here is your prescription for a FarmBox!” Then you go to CVS and fill it, because it just makes sense. Something so simple, yet we’ve made it so complicated.
When you talk about prescriptions, I’m thinking about claims. Do we have the processing infrastructure in place yet, where we can actually reimburse for a food prescription?
We don’t have coding for it. I’m hopeful it will come in this administration. I have faith that CMS will push something like this out into the marketplace.
So how have you made this real?
One of the biggest produce distributors in the country handles all of our operations. FedEx is our logistics partner. They deliver our boxes for us.
And then our biggest partners within healthcare are companies like Anthem. We grew from partnering with three health plans to 51 in 10 months. Medicare is huge for us because the 65+ population is just so food insecure, but we are also expanding into Medicaid. We were just approved to be the first online national grocery e-commerce company to be able to accept SNAP EBT. We are already talking with plans on the Medicaid side to partner with them.
There’s a common misconception that just because people are low income, they don’t want to be healthy, right? They actually want to be healthy, they just don’t have access to the right foods, and they can’t afford it. We are working through that right now.
Farmbox Direct: https://instagram.com/farmboxdirect
Farmbox Ashley: https://www.instagram.com/farmboxashley/
Harlow’s Harvest: https://www.instagram.com/harlowsharvest/
Ashley Tyrner: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashley-tyrner-129082a3/