Organizations must collaborate to address Houston’s food deserts

Kinder Institute report says institutional barriers, competition limit cooperation

Nearly a quarter of a million people in the Houston area lack access to healthy food. A new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research says collaboration between hunger-fighting organizations is necessary to address the problem.

A picture of fresh fruits and vegetables. Photo credit:

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“Challenges of Social Sector Systemic Collaborations: What’s Cookin’ in Houston’s Food Insecurity Space?” is authored by Doug Schuler, a Kinder Fellow and associate professor of business and public policy at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, and Balaji Koka, an associate professor of strategic management at the Jones School, examines the nature of collaborations between nonprofit, for-profit and governmental organizations working on food insecurity and food deserts in Houston.

Research shows that unequal access to healthy food is likely to blame for some of the negative health outcomes in the Houston metropolitan area.

“In Harris County alone, about 1 in 3 children is likely to be obese and about 1 in 3 children born since 2000 is likely to develop diabetes,” the report says. “These health challenges result in additional health care costs of $3 billion in just Harris County.”

Schuler and Koka found four major types of collaborations among these organizations: dominant player supply chain, where dominant organizations share a common agenda and have a self-reinforcing relationship; neighborhood wrap-around, which concentrates on directing persons who access pantries to receive other social services; umbrella, which involves large organizations that recruit smaller groups to deliver a bundle of services; and informational, which gathers information about delivery of services.

However, the authors said none of these forms of collaboration lead to the level of integration and coordination required over an extended period to solve such an important social issue.

The researchers said the biggest hurdles for accomplishing long-term positive change include institutional barriers stemming from funders, government policies and politics, and a mindset of competition in which organizations strive for resources and market dominance often at the expense of cooperation.

The researchers suggest the following:

  • Funders should invest in efforts that focus beyond short-term, quickly visible outcomes.
  • Funders should require recipients to report activities across multiple dimensions, including how they contribute to other organizations and what they receive outside of their own programs.
  • Governments should make policies as flexible as possible to support collaborations between entities.
  • Organizations should focus less on competition and more on a mindset of altruism and civic consciousness. If the goal is to address food insecurity, it should not matter which organization receives credit.
  • Organizations should be willing to share knowledge and collaborate for the common good.

The authors hope their research will inspire funders, policymakers and other organizations to adopt policies, processes and mindsets that encourage collaborations and flexible operations while avoiding competitive actions.

The report was based on data collected from interviews, experiential field visits and focus groups of individuals living in one food desert neighborhood. The interviews and visits occurred over 33 months between 2015 and 2018.

The report is available online at

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.