Meet social innovation founder Katie Plohocky at MMH Together 2023: How she combats food insecurity for more health equity in the U.S.

Picture a vibrant community in the U.S., where laughter fills the air, children play in the streets, and neighbors greet each other with warm smiles. In this lively scene, the aroma of freshly cooked meals wafts through the air, as families gather around tables laden with nourishing, wholesome food. Food is more than just sustenance; it's a connection, a source of nourishment, and a treasure trove of memories.

Yet, for many people in the U.S., this idyll is far from reality. In the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a staggering 45 percent of its population faces low access to fresh foods, and an alarming 17 percent live in food deserts, where quality food is virtually unattainable. In these areas, residents must travel miles to find a grocery store offering essential items such as fresh produce. When it's easier to find a needle in a haystack than buying an apple in your neighborhood, it's clear that your community faces a significant challenge.

Enter Katie Plohocky, a social founder who has dedicated her life to addressing this public health problem. Through her non-profit, the Healthy Community Store Initiative, Katie has successfully brought fresh food stores back to urban and rural communities. As a panelist at our upcoming Making More Health Together 2023 (MMH Together) convention taking place on October 11-12, Katie will share her insights on her work, need for social innovation, and her vision for the future of health equity.

Katie Plohocky

Katie, can you tell us about your journey from growing up on a farm in Michigan to becoming a social founder dedicated to rebuilding a healthy, equitable food system? Is there a personal story or experience that has inspired you in your work to create a more equitable food system?

Absolutely, it's been a long journey indeed. Growing up on a farm in Michigan, I was naturally connected to agriculture. I also worked in several restaurants early in my life, which allowed me to incorporate the chef piece and a lot of nutrition into my work. But the real driving force behind my passion is my personal experience as a single mom raising three daughters. We were food insecure, and that feeling of not being able to provide for your family is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. It's a terrible feeling, it makes you feel inadequate, not a good parent. Despite working two jobs at the same time, it was still a struggle. That's what drives me to ensure other parents have access to healthy food.

Your work addresses food deserts and food scarcity in Tulsa. What is the impact of these issues on the community? 

It's taken us decades to get to this space where there's a lack of grocery stores. As big box stores and grocery stores got bigger, they bought up a lot of the smaller stores. This has led to a lack of access to wholesale distribution for small stores, which is a significant barrier to sustaining their business.
In my community, people in certain areas live 11 years less than those on the other side of town, simply because they don't have access to grocery stores or fresh produce. Diet-related diseases are very high and one of the causes of early death in my community. So, we just want to make sure that they do have the option to choose fresh food to be able to live a healthier life. 

U.S. food deserts

 How is your organization working to overcome these challenges?

Our journey started with the opening of a mobile grocery store. We were literally taking the grocery store to neighborhoods and to centralized areas where there was a lot of traffic generation so people would have access to that food. This evolved into a teaching farm and a regional food hub to aggregate purchasing power and access wholesale markets. In 2022, we served 12,779 people through our mobile and micro grocery stores. We were able to provide our customers with USD $64,000 worth of free fresh fruits and vegetables. 
Our mobile grocery store initiative started as a temporary solution, but we're now working on a more permanent approach with the Grocery Box. For that, we upcycle shipping containers into self-contained grocery stores. We plan to place these in underserved neighborhoods, empowering locals to own and operate them. 
For these communities, our efforts have meant increased access to nutritious food, empowering residents to make healthier choices and improve their overall well-being. By providing innovative solutions like the Grocery Box and supporting local ownership of grocery stores, we're not only addressing immediate food access issues but also fostering economic opportunities and self-sufficiency within these neighborhoods.

Mobile Grocery Store

As an Ashoka Fellow and a Fellow of our Making More Health initiative, how have these experiences shaped your approach to social innovation?

As an Ashoka Fellow and a Fellow of the Making More Health initiative, my experiences have been transformative and have significantly shaped my approach to social innovation. These fellowships have provided invaluable opportunities for learning, networking, and collaboration, enabling me to better understand the complexities of systems change and the potential of social enterprise.
One example of the value of being a Making More Health Fellow is the access to a global network of like-minded individuals and organizations. This has allowed me to exchange ideas, learn from others' experiences, and collaborate on projects that drive positive change. For instance, I've been able to connect with other fellows working on food security and health equity, which has broadened my perspective and inspired new approaches to our work.
The Ashoka Fellowship, on the other hand, has provided me with resources and mentorship to further develop my leadership skills and refine our organization's strategy. This support has been instrumental in helping us scale our impact and reach more underserved communities.
These two fellowships complement each other, as they both contribute to my personal and professional growth, while also enhancing our organization's capacity to create meaningful change. The combination of these experiences has reinforced the importance of patience and perseverance in systems change work, as well as the value of collaboration and learning from others in the field. Together, they have strengthened my commitment to social innovation and my ability to drive lasting impact in the communities we serve.

On the second day of MMH Together, MMH, you will take part in the “Social innovation – hype or hope?” panel discussion, what key insights do you hope to share with the audience?

I hope to share that social innovation is happening. As for our initiative, the pandemic has highlighted the broken food system, leading to increased funding and collaboration. What is especially exciting is that I see an increasing trend of young entrepreneurs wanting to make a living while making a difference. Social innovation is meant to address health equity, through nonprofits and for-profit companies focused on social impact. But collaboration is key here. By working together, we can create resilient systems that benefit all stakeholders. Then social innovation is not just hype but hope for more health equity in the future.

Curious about what the other speakers and panelists have to say at our Making More Health Together 2023 convention on October 11-12, 2023?

We dive into social impact trends, discussions on sustainable innovation and strive to build collaboration between social entrepreneurs, impact investors, NGOs, foundations, governmental organizations, academia, and industry from across the globe. The registration for on-site attendance is now closed. Register now for virtual attendance and be part of the conversations on creating a more equitable future for all.