Richard H. Thaler is a kind of a big deal, and if you don’t know, now you know.
Professor Thaler, who teaches at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences last month for his contributions to the field, specifically in understanding human behaviors. His life’s work illustrated that humans act irrationally in consistent ways that can be predicted and modeled. The implications of his work transcend all sectors. In 2008, Thaler co-authored “Nudge” and encouraged governments to use their insights for public good. Enrollment in retirement savings accounts significantly increased with a slight change: enrollment was the default option, which forced people to “opt out” if they weren’t interested. Observing and prioritizing human behavior, such as what behavioral economists describe above as “inertia”, over standard economic theories of rational actors, has made all the difference and has created myriad pathways into practical application.
Take the Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) at Duke, founded by Ted rockstar Dan Ariely. It houses decades worth of social and behavioral science knowledge, researchers AND entrepreneurs all under the same roof. CAH’s current focus has been working with startups that address financial security or health behaviors.
Public health, like economics, was built on the assumption that people behave rationally at all times. Thaler and Ariely have challenged those assumptions time and time again. We, as public health professionals, need to lean into uncertainty, especially when in matters of health behaviors. The populations that are most at-risk and need public health folks the most don’t live in ideal conditions. They may or may not have stable income, housing, transportation or have access to their next meal. If we can’t assume that people will behave rationally in a “normal” situation, we can’t assume they would behave rationally in a “distressed” situation.
Those are exactly the questions that crossed Allison Sosna’s mind at various points in her life and she shares her experience with us, below.
Allison Sosna, aka Chef Alli, is the founder of the MicroGreens Project
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing? Describe your journey to your current role as founder of MicroGreens.
Allison Sosna: I was in college and on the rowing team. Food, at that time, was synonymous for fuel that my body needed to perform. Sure, I ate healthily – lots of veggies, carbs, and protein (mostly chicken and eggs) but I did not give it any further thought. In my junior year, I lived in Italy. It was there that I was enlightened by the power of food on a community and would therein change the course of my life. I lived in a small neighborhood outside of Rome where residents all knew one another. They knew the barista and asked him how school was going. They wanted to know if the butcher’s cold had gone away. Everyone cared about one another and food was clearly the denominator of affection. In Rome, I realized that I wanted to do something with food and people. I did not come back wanting to be a chef, but, I saw that as a way for me to create food and community. So, I volunteered as a prep cook down the street when I got back to DC. I loved it. I loved the physical exertion that went into working on the line during dinner service. I loved wearing a uniform and feeling part of a community; a diverse community of women, men, people of different races, and different backgrounds with different stories. The sociologist in me was in love.
Shortly after, I went to culinary school, had a jaunt in fine dining, and then got a full time job at Dean and Deluca. While I learned a lot there, I realized I wanted to do more with my community; I didn’t want to feed rich people anymore. I had veered off course from the initial eureka moment. Leaving that job, I landed a job at a non-profit called DC Central Kitchen overseeing Fresh Start Catering, the social enterprise of the non-profit. When I started, we were providing the food services for a private school for at-risk boys, but it was generic and too similar to the lackluster school food that America is known for. Seeing such, I brought in healthier options, started making food like meatballs in-house, a salad bar, and marketed our vegetables to be more “fun” by using them as anecdotes. For example, I would say that foods like roasted carrots was a veggie that basketball players ate to perform better on the court (It’s true!). We had a lot of success there and that led us to win a food service bid for 8 DC Public Schools. We served thousands of meals a day to low-income kids who didn’t have easy access to fruits and vegetables (in 2010). Kids, of course, were coming to school with chips and soda, but I wanted to do something about it. I thought about the parents or guardians that were at home with the kids. How did they eat? Was it influencing their kids’ eating behaviors? How could I shift behavior? What I drew from all these questions was the question of their budget. How does a low-income family eat healthily? If I was a parent on SNAP, how did I use my money? Did I know how to cook? Did I know what to buy? The majority did not. As a result, I started MicroGreens and the Allison Sosna Group (ASG). ASG is my consulting “firm” for menu development, food service consulting, and private chef services. I had left my job to start MicroGreens, but also needed an income! I continue to consult today.
MicroGreens teaches kids to cook on a budget of $3.50 per meal, per family of four. The program has graduated over 150 kids across the country, with the help of community leaders that want to make their neighborhoods healthier. MicroGreens can be implemented anywhere, for any income level, for any length of time, and with any age group.
I moved to New York City in 2013 and while I was still working on MicroGreens and taking chef jobs, I needed an income and a job I truly cared about. So, I applied to jobs in public health nutrition with a focus on project coordination. After a year and a half of coming close to many jobs (NYC is tough!), I went back to school for a Master in Public Health degree.
Over the last year I’ve been intrigued with hospital food and its obligation (or lack thereof) to ensure that everyone has access to healthy food – from its staff to patients and also to visitors. While I am not trained in therapeutic meal development, I am trained to assist in cafeteria food services. I’ve been fortunate, by way of hustling and networking, to be part of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Healthy Hospitals and Colleges Initiatives. We are working with food distributors to get chefs and food service directors healthier products for their hospital or college. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to be on the other side helping the chef. I would have loved this help when I was working.
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?
AS: On a daily basis, knowing that I am a part of something larger gets me through tough times. I know inherently that I am making a difference by bringing in healthier options for people. Every time a consumer replaces an unhealthy product for a healthier option, I know that I helped facilitate that. And as we all know too well, establishing healthy behaviors takes time.
As a student with a part-time job, I’m constantly moving around, not being able to cook for myself nearly as much as I want to, paying copious amounts for transportation, and don’t have a social life. But, I know I will, and am looking forward to graduating next year, when I can stay put and focus on doing work for my community full-time.
Moreover, the people I work with are incredibly supportive and that support allows me to focus on doing well in school and do an even better job at work.
Me: Tell us more about MicroGreens. How did you get into the social impact space? Why is it important to reach underprivileged populations?
AS: We must think about sustainability when we design programs. That being said, MicroGreens was originally going to be funded by a fast casual restaurant I was going to open. It would serve as part of the capital going into the non-profit. I’ve always believed that business needs to be part of the equation when designing interventions such as MicroGreens. I got 70% funded for the project but then had to let it go. I came close though and I’m proud of that.
If we do not focus on creating upstream programs first, we are doing a disservice to our communities, whether they are privileged or not. It truly does come down to the old adage “Give a person a fish and feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”
One of the most impactful experiences I had with MicroGreens was not related to cooking. A student who had taken the class before was walking by our teaching classroom and walked in to say hi. He walked over to one of the kids who was having trouble cutting carrots (cutting carrots is hard!) and said “If you ever need help, let me know. I’m MicroGreens alumni.” Not only had this student learned skills and put them into action, but the program had instilled pride and confidence to teach others. There was a kindred relationship forming, a mentorship. That made me so proud.
Me: What are the current needs in New York City as they relate to social determinants of health (i.e SES, poverty, access to care, transportation, safety, etc.)?
AS: 1 in 9 residents have diabetes in NYC. Communities have little access to healthy foods blocks from affluent neighborhoods with endless healthy food choices. Soda ads saturate low-income areas and schools are without outside playgrounds. All determinants of health are so greatly intertwined that it can be overwhelming, especially for public health officials trying to make a difference. We talk a lot about that at school. How do we design interventions that encompass all contextual factors? First, by working with community stakeholders.