In Silicon Valley, the biggest financial rewards go to innovative, often contrarian ideas that scale globally. So entrepreneurs don’t just look for opportunities to create something radically new. They also look for opportunities that can impact hundreds of millions of people.
This mindset has brought us Google, Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, smartphones, and countless other technologies and services that have substantially improved our lives in just the last 20 years.
This mindset also extends beyond for-profit ventures. When Silicon Valley technologists and entrepreneurs engage in philanthropy, they often look for impact on a global scale.
Over the last few years, I’ve engaged in such efforts myself. For example, I support Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s BioHub initiative, which aims to cure all diseases over the next 80 to 100 years. I support Opportunity@Work, a non-profit that is working to “re-wire the U.S. labor market” by creating effective pathways to high-tech careers, especially for women, minorities, and others who’ve been traditionally underrepresented in the industry.
Kiva.org, a global microfinance platform, and Crisis Textline, which offers counseling via smartphone to individuals in crisis, are two other technologically driven non-profits I support that have scaled rapidly and impact millions of users.
But as useful as it can be to pursue philanthropic moonshots and disruptions, it’s also true that not every challenge we face needs a major technological breakthrough to effectively address.
One obvious example of this is the issue of hunger and food security in the U.S.A. When young children don’t have reliable access to high-quality, nutritious food, research shows that they get sick more often. They have less energy for complex social interactions, and less capacity to adapt to environmental stresses, all of which ends up impacting their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. According to a report called Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation, adults who “experienced hunger as children create a workforce pool that is less competitive, with lower levels of educational and technical skills, and seriously constrained human capital.”
Thus, ensuring that every member of a community has reliable access to high-quality food has compounding positive impact. In the short term, it helps alleviate the immediate issues of hunger and nutrition. But it’s also a long-term intervention that can boost the effectiveness of a wide range of other philanthropic programs that address education, skills acquisition, career training, and more.
In the United States, we produce food so efficiently now that some estimates suggest we actually waste as much as $165 billion in food each year. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean everyone in the U.S. has reliable access to nutritious and affordable food – far from it.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 15.8 million U.S. households were “food insecure” in 2015 – meaning that at some point during the year they “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Approximately 3 million of these households included children.
In Santa Clara County, where the tech boom has helped push the median household income to $93,000, food security is still an issue. Indeed, Silicon Valley’s success has increased the cost of living for everyone in the region, and that means many residents experience food insecurity. According to the Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, it is providing more meals now to local residents than it was at the height of the recession.
Second Harvest currently provides food to approximately 253,000 people each month, a third of whom are children under the age of 18. Seniors on fixed incomes also struggle to make ends meet in the region.
Helping Second Harvest increase access to nutritious food is simple but crucial way to have real and immediate impact in our community. That’s why I’m co-chairing Second Harvest’s Stand Up For Kids campaign with Sheryl Sandberg and John and Eileen Donahoe.
During a recent visit to a Second Harvest food pantry that operates out of an elementary school in East Palo Alto, I saw how many members of our community benefit from Second Harvest’s work. Twice a month, more than 1250 clients depend on the fresh produce and other nutritious food staples that volunteers distribute there.
In the 42 years that Second Harvest has been serving Silicon Valley, it has grown into one of the country’s largest food banks, leveraging a network of more than 300 other local organizations and 850 sites to distribute 54 million meals per year. Volunteers contribute more than 300,000 hours of service. Food donors provide over 50 million pounds of food, including approximately 41 million pounds that would have otherwise gone to waste.
But financial contributions – most of which come from individual donors – are a crucial component of its efforts. While Second Harvest relies on large-scale food donations from distributors, farmers, and other sources, it still must purchase approximately 25 percent of the food it donates each year.
In addition, there are costs associated with maintaining a safe and efficient distribution and storage network – a must when handling the kind of nutritious but highly perishable foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken, milk, and eggs — that are the basis of a healthy diet.
Because of its mission and scale, Second Harvest is able to negotiate deals with food vendors at very favorable rates. It also operates with extraordinary efficiency. 95 cents of every dollar it receives is applied to food distribution, and only five cents goes to salaries, fundraising, and other operating costs. Any donation that you make, in other words, is converted almost entirely into food that helps community members live healthier, more fulfilling lives.
While Second Harvest’s data-driven decision-making and iterative process improvement appeal to the Silicon Valley entrepreneur in me, my commitment to the organization ultimately goes deeper than that. As much as I work to achieve impact on a global scale, I’m also part of a local community that includes many different facets beyond the tech industry.
And food, of course, is not just a basic human requirement, but also one of the most central ways that people connect. For more than 40 years, Second Harvest has been improving our region’s health and resilience, helping individuals obtain the nutrition that will give them best shot at attaining long-term positive outcomes, and strengthening that sense of connectedness that every community must possess to reach its full potential. It’s a privilege to help Second Harvest in its indispensable mission, and I strongly encourage others to support it as well.