How Wellfare is working to “flip the food-pantry model” as it enters its second year

The nonprofit is bringing its “better-for-you” boxes for low-income families to East Harlem this month.
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5 min read

For residents of Bushwick, Brooklyn, snacks like Slim Jim and Arizona Iced Tea may be readily available (and inexpensive) at a slew of neighborhood bodegas, but the same can’t necessarily be said for their better-for-you counterparts—like Chomps grass-fed beef sticks or Sound’s low-sugar sparkling tea.

Since debuting a year ago, a nonprofit called Wellfare has worked to change that. It distributes free boxes of premium CPG food products to low-income families in Bushwick, with plans to expand to East Harlem this month.

“A lot of these food brands that are making all these innovative products are hitting Whole Foods, and hitting Sprouts, and all these great grocery stores,” founder and CEO Cole Riley told Retail Brew. “At the end of the day, they are premium products that are [sold] at higher prices. And when you look at neighborhoods, whether in New York City or across the country, that really rely on low-cost grocery options, families that have to go to food pantries, they cannot access this big wave of premium products.”


In early 2020, Riley was just a few months into running a food content studio in New York City when the pandemic hit. He quickly pivoted to found an initiative called Founders Give, rallying food and bev companies from Kind to Chobani to donate products to frontline health care workers across the city.

  • The 10-week-long project ultimately brought together 300+ brands, delivering 2.2 million products to first responders in New York City, according to the campaign.

Now with a number of industry connections, Riley said he saw an “opportunity to build something that’s pointed at communities,” and debuted Wellfare in February 2021 with the goal to “flip the food-pantry model.”


Outside the box: The nonprofit works with brands—including LaCroix and Vital Proteins—to collect donated, pre-packaged snacks and bevs (all shelf-stable), and then organizes them into boxes and delivers them to participants who are either living in public housing or enrolled in SNAP—straight to their doors or to a pickup point.

Every two weeks, they receive boxes containing $150–$175 worth of goods like chickpea pasta or low-sugar cereal (Riley noted that it’s in need of more bev partners since the price of shipping them has been so high).

Along with donations from brands, it’s gotten financial support from Whole Foods and The Coca-Cola Foundation, and has industry leaders like Imperfect Foods co-founder Benjamin Chesler on its board.

  • In Brooklyn, Wellfare now typically serves 1,100+ people, with ~50 families signing up every two weeks, Riley said.
  • Riley is the sole full-time employee, supported by interns, part-time and freelance workers, plus a “massive” volunteer group that works out of its Queens warehouse and outpost in Bushwick.

Feedback: To pick where in NYC to start, Riley said he looked for an area with the highest ratio of bodegas to grocery stores, aiming to offer “healthier swaps” for some of the convenience items that low-income residents were already eating.

  • Bushwick’s ratio is 31:1, per Hunter College’s New York City Food Policy Center, with 30.6% of residents receiving SNAP benefits, compared to 22.4% of all NYC households.
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“Instead of trying to get in front of a kid and put a head of lettuce in front of their face, you give them a healthier drink, a healthier soda with less sugar,” he said. “And that is the first step. It’s not the end-all-be-all of solving food insecurity…But it is really impactful and a great first step.”

Riley noted some critics like to “poke holes” in Wellfare’s approach to offering premium products over typical food-pantry fare like produce and canned soups. But he believes these products aren’t just “nice-to-have” but “need-to-have,” important to low-income shoppers—a “health-conscious consumer that nobody talks about.”

  • “People know that they shouldn’t be drinking these high-sugar products,” Riley said. “But they also don’t want to be demonized if they need to grab a burger on the way home from work. What they want are options. And the biggest barrier is price.”

Public knowledge: Wellfare worked with NYC’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to advertise its services and distribute boxes at Bushwick’s Moore Street Market, per Riley. Recently, he said, the EDC approached him to expand to East Harlem; Wellfare will debut there on April 16, serving the population around La Marqueta, another EDC-owned and managed public market.

  • Riley said EDC hopes to bring together stakeholders like city council members, the borough president, and other leaders to help the nonprofit grow in the area.

2022 will be the “year of more” for Wellfare, according to Riley: It aims to serve 3,500 families by the end of the year, with the goal of operating five or six distribution outposts citywide—ultimately becoming a Feeding America equivalent for newer food and bev businesses.

“Where Feeding America can have the mass conglomerates we can ultimately be partnered with the next wave of companies,” he said.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.