Kansas City-based startup Free From Market will receive $100,000 in non-dilutive funding from Google as part of the tech giant’s initiative to support Black-led startups.
Free From Market is a digital health platform that unites the key components needed for people with chronic conditions to make lasting dietary changes: personalized food selection, nutritional education and support, and essential data.
Emily Brown, a thought leader in the “food is medicine” movement — now the founder and CEO of Free From Market — began working in the food equity space after struggling to access healthy food for her own children.
“I’ve lived the challenge of trying to find healthy, appropriate foods for chronic conditions personally,” Brown said. “I have two daughters who have chronic conditions where food is really part of the standard of care. My family was on WIC and SNAP, just like many Americans during tough economic times, and we still couldn’t afford what we needed to keep my daughters safe.”
That experience led Brown to found Food Equality Initiative, a nonprofit that supports nutrition security and health equity through a charitable food system.
Through her work, Brown said she saw the opportunity — and the need — to scale.
“One in three Americans has a chronic condition where food is part of the standard of care,” Brown said. “But what we’ve seen is that 50 percent of them lack consistent access to the food and resources they need to be healthy. Everyone cannot just run to their local health store. There are so many systemic barriers in place.”
Free From Market — which Brown described as a “socially-minded” for-profit organization — exists to help remove some of those barriers.
Patients with chronic conditions are referred to Free From Market by a partner hospital, physician, payer, or community-based organization.
The startup is currently working only with food-insecure and financially disadvantaged clients, though Brown said that she hopes to expand that coverage.
Free From Market works with its partners to provide users with a monthly voucher amount, so when they access the digital platform, they can select diet-specific foods at no cost. Additional items above the subsidy can be purchased using debit or credit cards.
‘Eat your way to better health’
On the platform, users can filter through ingredients, allergens, and any other dietary restrictions or needs, then have their personalized groceries shipped directly to their doorstep.
“Everyone is different,” Brown said. “We all have different dietary requirements, health needs, and even dietary preferences based on our cultural background, so there’s really no one solution for everyone. We don’t make ‘diabetes boxes’ or ‘kidney disease boxes.’ We believe in a personalized approach.”
In addition to helping people with chronic conditions access healthy, appropriate foods, Free From Market also provides users with educational support, such as one-on-one tele-coaching.
Such support helps reinforce positive behavioral change, which ultimately leads to improved health outcomes, Brown said.
“We know it’s not just enough to provide people with access to food, but that education and knowledge are powerful,” Brown said. “We really take an approach of empowering our clients and our users … working hand-in-hand to make sure that they can have that positive behavior change over time.”
The company plans to launch its first nutritional program later this year, she said.
Its final component is measuring health outcomes using a data-driven approach, so both patients and medical partners can see how dietary changes are improving patient health.
Access to and understanding of data improves user adherence and shows insurance providers how using food as medicine can reduce the cost of care, Brown said.
“For our partners, this is key,” she added. “For the first time, they’re able to see the data on how their patients or members are shopping, which can then further drive those health outcomes. The data is so important, and it’s been kind of a missing piece to this work.”
All of Free From Market’s current partners are located in the Midwest, though the platform can deliver groceries anywhere in the continental United States.
Sixty-four percent of current users live in what the USDA calls “peri-rural areas,” which are located between the outer limits of urban centers and rural communities, Brown said.
“I’m really excited about our work at Free From Market because it’s an equitable solution to support individuals living in urban and rural communities,” she said. “That’s the beauty of technology — it allows us to bring scale to solutions that had not been met before.”
Putting Kansas City on the (Google) map
In addition to the $100,000 in non-dilutive funding — which means the funding is not given in exchange for equity in the company — Google will also provide Free From Market with $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, hands-on support from Google employees, and free access to business coaching and mental health services.
Google launched the initiative, officially called the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, in 2020 as a way to boost economic opportunity in Black communities. In the United States, less than one percent of venture capital goes to Black founders.
“As a Black woman leading a tech company, I know how challenging it can be to raise capital, and I’m honored to have this non-dilutive investment from Google,” Brown said.
The 176 U.S. recipients in the original two cohorts received a total of $10 million, and have gone on to raise an additional $139 million. To be eligible, a business must have raised less than $3 million and demonstrate a need for funding.
While Brown isn’t yet sure exactly how Free From Market will use its new funds, she’s certain that the additional capital will help the company continue to grow and address health outcomes through food as medicine.
“In many ways, it’s a validation of the work that Free From Market does here to connect those who are most vulnerable with chronic conditions to the foods that they need,” Brown said.
“This is an issue that’s prevalent in every community across the country,” she continued. “We’re excited to continue to build our solution and work with partners to address this issue, and to have Google’s support is tremendous.”
Free From Market is the first recipient from Kansas City, something Brown said made her “excited and proud to put Kansas City on the map.” (PlaBook, an edtech startup built by Dr. Philip Hickman in Kansas City before relocating to St. Louis to take advantage of the Arch Grants program, also was named to the 2022 Google cohort.)
Click here to see the full list of funding winners.
“I’m just excited to continue to build here in Kansas City,” she said. “I’m thrilled, and just quite frankly, honored by the Google award. It’s significant. I’m honored to be the first in Kansas City, and we hope to make Kansas City proud and continue to provide value and impact for those in Kansas City and beyond.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.