Lisa Helfman has a big vision for Brighter Bites, the fresh produce-oriented nonprofit she founded in Houston five years ago.
The organization, which works to increase consumption by giving fruits and vegetables to families and teaching people how to use them, now has operations not only in Houston but in Dallas; Austin, Texas; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Immokalee, Fla.
Helfman sees more opportunities on the horizon, driven by industry partners who want to bring the program to areas where they produce.
Expanding in Florida and establishing a presence in California are of interest to Brighter Bites, and within the next decade the organization could have an international presence as well, perhaps in Mexico since numerous U.S. companies work closely with growers there.
“That’s on our radar if we can create a model that is sustainable with impact throughout the world,” Helfman said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I do want to say we have big sights, and we know from people that we are introduced to ... that this need is everywhere. This is not a problem that is just limited to the U.S.”
Before she started Brighter Bites, Helfman was an attorney and head of real estate for Texas Children’s Hospital, and after the passage of the Affordable Care Act she had been considering the intersection of disease prevention and health care and the role that food could play.
“I thought if we don’t start preventing some of the illnesses before people need to get to the doctor, we’re never going to move the needle on health care,” Helfman said, adding that she realized fresh produce would be a great tool in heading off various conditions.
Now running real estate operations for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Helfman has hired a team to run Brighter Bites day-to-day.
“It’s been really amazing to watch it grow,” Helfman said. “It’s also been exciting and humbling to hear the same stories in New York that we hear in Texas. The need is so great across the country for access to fresh produce, and I have found that people want to do what’s right for their children ... The great thing I can say about Brighter Bites is we’re not just giving them the produce, we’re teaching them how to use it, so we’re demystifying fresh produce.
“I think that our three-part formula, this produce distribution, nutrition education and a fun food experience is why we’ve had such a demand shift,” Helfman said, noting that the organization has worked with the University of Texas to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.
Her conviction about the potential for Brighter Bites prompted executive director Samuel Newman to leave his previous job and move his family to be part of the organization.
“You don’t get someone to do that without being incredibly passionate and dedicated to this mission and this work that we’re involved in,” Newman said. “Brighter Bites stands for something, and Lisa uniquely and specifically lives out the ethos of who we are as an organization, in a sense personifies it ... It’s not lip service.”
Brighter Bites has already been working with the Produce Marketing Association, and Helfman looks forward to more partnerships with the industry and its members going forward.
The organization collaborates regularly with numerous producers, distributors and food banks.
“This has never seemed like work to me,” Helfman said. “I just believe that it’s a great mission, and I’m excited to be spreading it.”