Pathway to Population Health Award

Matt Habash, CEO, Mid-Ohio Foodbank

Matt Habash has been at the helm of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank for pretty much his entire career. He became the 4-year-old food bank’s CEO in 1984, when he was just 27. He also did a pretty important stint as a member of Columbus City Council from 1993 to 2006, serving as council president from 1999 to 2006. He says he has viewed both roles—political and social—as ways to serve the community.

In his role as the foodbank’s CEO, Habash has grown the organization from a 3 million-pound-a-year food bank to 70 million pounds. And now, 67 percent of that food is fresh. But those numbers aren’t how Habash benchmarks success. He’s interested in helping people live better, healthier lives, and he brings creativity and empathy to the challenge.

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank didn’t always have a focus on fresh food. In 2011, Habash was asked to lead a three-day summit on the agency’s role in the community. Attendees met inside the food bank’s hulking Grove City building. The action step taken from the summit: Figure out how to offer more fresh food. It wasn’t hard to find. Each year, six to seven billion pounds of produce in the U.S. go unsold and uneaten. Of those billions, Habash said only about 350 million pounds were being distributed by the 200 food banks in the Feeding America network. His charge: Get 1 billion pounds of longer-storing “hard goods” (potatoes, carrots, apples, etc.).

Rather than asking people to make their way to a faraway destination to pick up their produce, or to wait until the end of the month when food and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program resources are depleted, Mid-Ohio Foodbank opened a free fresh-foods market inside the Church for All People on Parsons Avenue in March 2018. Habash wants people to feel like customers at all the food bank’s pantries so they come more often, which translates into distributing more fresh food. He plans to open similar markets in other neighborhoods, tailor-making them to fit each community’s needs.

A story from a woman in a focus group left an impression on Habash. She said she couldn’t afford to shop at a food pantry. At first, her statement seemed baffling, but she explained her hourly job didn’t leave her with an option to make it to a food pantry during work hours. Part of the new strategy is to offer shopping hours that reflect whatever is needed for community members—be it 40, 50 or even 60 hours a week open. Food pantries typically keep regular business hours and sometimes are only open for half a day or a few hours at a time.

Since All People’s Fresh Market opened, it has grown from distributing 600,000 pounds of produce, milk and bread per year to 2 million pounds. Originally, 9,000 households were making return visits to the pantry. Now, that number is 56,000 households. On average, people are coming 2.3 times per month. That delights Habash. He says the key cards given to customers evoke a sense of membership that makes them visit more.

“This is a healthcare strategy,” says Habash. “We see our measurement of success now is not in meeting basic needs, but in having an impact on overall health.”

Habash also has partnered with Dr. Buhari Mohammed, CEO of Heart of Ohio Family Health, on diabetes research and the role food plays in health. Mohammed says Habash has had a lasting effect on the community and the field. “Matt’s visionary approach to holistic services has contributed to what we now say in central Ohio—food is actually medicine,” Mohammed says. Post-collaboration, there are health centers in the community prescribing fresh food instead of medicine for certain problems such as high cholesterol. Habash isn’t content to merely feed Columbus’ hungry—of which there are many. He’s thinking bigger. Thanks to the development of in-house software called PantryTrak that Mid-Ohio Foodbank has deployed with some of its partner pantries, data has been gleaned that shows a decrease in blood glucose levels and an average of 10 pounds of weight loss for those taking advantage of the fresh produce. Habash has given the software to other food banks, hoping one day to show the data to Medicaid officials in a bid to secure additional funding for produce. After all, the more produce Medicaid recipients eat, the less the federal and state health insurance program has to spend on treating chronic diseases such as diabetes. “We’ve already proven it works,” he says. “It’s all evidence-based.”

Perhaps Habash’s overarching goal for all food banks, including his, can be described as a revolution that remakes the system into one that puts customers first. Eventually, that could undo a lot of the harm segregation and poverty have done to central Ohio and beyond, says Habash. “Let’s look at it from a person’s perspective, not from our system’s perspective.”

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The 2019 Healthcare Achievement Awards are Thursday, March 28, at The Estate at New Albany. Tickets are on sale now.