Founded by Emily Brown, the Kansas City-based startup partners with health systems and community-based organizations to help lower-income Americans with health conditions obtain the food and support they need.
In an interview with FoodNavigator-USA, Brown, who is also FFM’s CEO, said that while food-as-medicine is a “buzzword” right now, it will take time to define the concept and show how it will truly benefit different populations.
“I see Free From Market really being one of few companies that live at the intersection of food and health,” she explained. “I'm really excited about the work that we're doing and the opportunities we have for growth, and I really see our work as transformative both in the food system as well as the health system.”
The company is positioned to benefit from moves from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services allowing certain states to use part of Medicaid funding for food programs and from the Biden administration’s focus on hunger, health and nutrition.
While regulations are “a tad vague” at this point, FFM “is really excited to work through those challenges to really bring a new market opportunity to consumers that just simply haven't had the buying power,” Brown said.
To help it get there, the company recently closed a $2.1 million seed investment round, led by Bluestein Ventures, and joined by Acumen America, Beta Boom, KCRise Fund, 1st Course Capital and AssetBlue Ventures.
"We continue to be impressed by the team's deep expertise and passion, both through lived experience and decades in the industry,” Andrew Bluestein, managing partner of Bluestein Ventures, said. “FFM is the much-needed connective tissue, bringing together key stakeholders within food and healthcare industries to improve the health and wellness of our communities."
Brown said the funding and partners, who offer experience across food, logistics, health care and Medicaid, will help FFM meet its goals.
“We are really focused on putting that capital to work and some of it on our product, making enhancements on our platform and making investments in business development as we look to grow and expand our reach within healthcare,” she said.
Improved outcomes, lower care costs
FFM aims to help improve health outcomes and lower the cost of care, working closely with health systems and community-based organizations to bring its platform to patients and clients.
The food itself is not prepacked, and patients are able to select the foods that they want and meet their dietary needs. Once chosen, foods are delivered directly to their door, “eliminating barriers around transportation.”
Further, the program offers a nutrition program featuring live and asynchronous content with certified health coaches and registered dietitians, so patients will have support when making dietary changes.
Health systems and community organizations get data about their patients from FFM, so they know if their member or patient is using the service.
One organization FFM is working with is a non-profit focused on food allergy advocacy and research.
Brown explained that the organization is concerned about members of its community who may be food insecure. Given that food is part of those members’ standard of care “we work with them to bring access to their members who may not have that access.”
The exec is also working with health systems that are subsidizing access to FFM through their community benefit programs.
Health systems have increased screening for food insecurity, housing security and transportation needs, helping them identify “a population where food and nutrition is a key component of the treatment or it's a key part of the standard of care.”
Once identified, those patients can then collaborate with FFM to meet those needs and ultimately boost health outcomes.
“Access to food or food security is one of three top common health related social needs that are present in every community,” Brown explained. “Free from Market is that partner that helps them deliver food and nutrition benefits to help improve their patients or their members’ health.”
“A trusted source”
FFM partners provide a credit for their patients or clients to shop with on the site, which they use to select the foods that meet their dietary guidelines.
Approximately 35% are purchasing above their subsidy, which to Brown indicates that “we really have become a trusted source for them to procure those foods they need to be healthy.”
As for the platform itself, FFM’s team has procured approximately 2,000 products that are nutrient dense, high-quality foods, including fresh produce, pantry staples, snacks and products for babies and kids.
“We have a standard and we've selected each of those foods with that standard in mind,” Brown said.
Individuals can shop and filter items through the site by allergens, ingredients, certifications, etc.
“We really try to make it where everyone can see their food identity show up on the platform because that's really important when it comes to adherence, being able to find some of those cultural foods that you're used to eating,” according to the exec.
FFM manages its own supply chain partners, and orders are not passed off to grocery stores to fulfill.
“That way we can manage some of the gaps that are kind of existent in the local grocery retail environment,” Brown said.
Users say health has improved
Customer feedback so far has been very positive, according to the exec.
There’s been very high utilization, Brown said, dubbing the 85% of customers shopping month over month as “power shoppers.”
Further, of the users that have been through FFM’s nutrition program, 90% say their health has improved.
“We have really tremendous feedback not only from the users, but also from providers who are excited that their patients can in many cases for the first time have access to the food they need to be compliant with their dietary guidelines,” she said.
Brown has drawn on her personal experience in developing FFM, both as a former Medicaid recipient and as a patient advocate and researcher.
“I just can't stress enough how that has influenced the way that we've built, the way that we think about providing a solution that is equitable and accessible to patients regardless of whether they live in an inner city community, where there has been disinvestment and a lack of retail infrastructure, or those who live in a rural community, where we've also seen significant challenges within the grocery retail footprint,” Brown said. “We are really working to address some of those gaps and nuances.”