Two public health grads walk into a startup…
Thoughts from the intersection of public health, technology, and food
The title of this post sounds like the start of a dad-joke (it sort of is), but it also happens to be true. In June 2015, with the ink still drying on our Master of Public Health diplomas, Emily and I took our desire to improve population health (and our talents) to Josephine. Our colleagues have gone on to pursue PhDs and MDs; they work for non-profits or are becoming Registered Dietitians. So how did two Cal MPH grads end up working at a food-tech startup like Josephine? Are we sellouts?
This is the first in a series focused on exploring the place where public health, technology and food meet.
It’s been about a year since I joined Josephine, and I’m still fielding questions about the decision to join a food-tech startup, especially from my parents. “Are you even using your degree?” “Why not work for a non-profit or some other organization that works on public health problems more explicitly?” Ultimately, my decision came down to three things that are still true today:
- I wanted a non-traditional application of public health. As you’re probably aware, the vast majority of humans in this country aren’t public health professionals, but all of us have a stake in the public health implications of a broken food system. At Josephine, “public health problems” are tackled by cooks and designers and lawyers and developers. I get to work with people that care about the same things I do and each of us brings a different framework for solving these problems to the table. It’s dope.
- I wanted to work quickly. In public health nutrition, every intervention is angling for long-term impact and it’s likely that it could take years, even decades, until we see broad-scale shifts in eating habits. I wanted to be part of expediting these shifts and at best, public health departments move at a snail’s pace. Improving the way our nation eats is too important of an issue to meander towards a solution. I wanted to work somewhere that is structured to be nimble and averse to stagnation.
- I wanted to work in a place filled with imagination. As a student, just about every public health nutrition intervention I learned about was either focused on nutrition research or education. The idea behind this thinking is that if we better understand what people eat, in what contexts, and how much, we can teach better eating habits, leading to a nation of healthier eaters and healthier people. All of that’s true, but as a student, I was frustrated by only having two options to make that happen. I yearned to be part of something that wanted to improve the way that people eat by actively and quickly changing an individual’s food environment. I wanted to work somewhere that believed in a not too distant future where people eat better. A place where we could try a new model for feeding each other and see if it worked. A place where it felt like every single day, I was helping to move the needle, no matter how imperceptible the shift.
So, why Josephine?
Although the three factors I mentioned above could apply to other food-tech companies, I chose Josephine because we aren’t disrupting anything and we don’t aspire to.¹ I chose Josephine because our entire company is centered around something that isn’t novel at all: a home cooked meal.
I’ve spent years thinking about what people eat and how it affects their health. And after all these years of study, I think that home cooked food is what matters most.
Research shows that foods prepared at home are generally healthier than foods prepared away from home,² but most Americans don’t cook.³ Although attempting to get an entire nation of busy, on-the-go people to stop, learn how to cook, and then actually cook is a noble goal, it isn’t the most realistic.⁴ Instead, what if we met this nation of busy, on-the-go people where they are and made it easy for them to buy home cooked meals? What if in doing so, we were supporting local food entrepreneurs and local economies? What if the easiest way to improve how our nation eats was that simple?
When it comes to food and people, there are still a lot of unknowns, and maybe there always will be. Like everything in public health nutrition, Josephine is an experiment—a compelling solution that I’m proud and humbled to be part of. My work with Josephine places me alongside a new generation of public health nutrition folks who want to be relevant in a technological future that’s changing the landscape of what food in the US looks like. And I’m in good company.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk all things food, tech, and public health. If you’re stoked about Josephine and what we’re building, I’d love to chat about that too.
¹ Ask any public health person and they’ll tell you that behavior change is really, really difficult. I’m wary of any company in the food-tech space that isn’t very wary of a business model predicated on convincing large swaths of the population to make major changes to the way they eat. I’m looking at you, Soylent.
² Cohen DA, Bhatia R. Nutrition standards for away-from-home foods in the USA. Obes Rev. 2012;13(7):618–629.
³ Smith LP, Ng SW, Popkin BM. Trends in US home food preparation and consumption: analysis of national nutrition surveys and time use studies from 1965–1966 to 2007–2008. Nutrition Journal. 2013;12:45.
⁴ By the way, lots of public health folks are working to get more people cooking, and it’s safe to say that they haven’t found the long-term solution yet.