Howard Schiffer worked in the vitamin industry, and wanted to do something more for children in underprivileged countries. So he started Vitamin Angels, which is providing vitamins and minerals to over 20 million children this year. The results have been staggering in the fight against poverty. Here is full story:
Love+Water- How did you come up with the idea for Vitamin Angels?
Howard Schiffer- I was a mid-wife in my early twenties, and was a part of the Home Birth Movement. I became involved in learning as much as I could about childbirth nutrition. At the time we were feeling pressure from the medical community and prenatal nutrition was a way in which we could help influence better birth outcomes for both the women and babies. When women were healthy, eating the right foods, getting the right nutrients and rest we had healthy babies and moms. That research and experience eventually lead me into the vitamin industry. I created vitamin brands for 14 years, and got to a point where I enjoyed selling the products but I knew there was something more I wanted to do. I knew they could have a positive impact on global health, but I didn’t know how to get them out to the villages that could benefit from them. There was an earthquake in Southern California at that time, and a vitamin company I owned received a call from a relief agency wanting to distribute vitamins to a migrant community that had been destroyed. I got them some vitamins, and realized that larger relief organizations did not have vitamins to distribute to people in need. I met with a relief agency to talk about what vitamins I could get them, and I learned some amazing facts, one being that a high dose of vitamin A given to a child once every six months- which is two capsules a year- can stop a child from going blind. I did not realize that, since I had never worked with children in such dire need, and was shocked at how easy it was to provide that for them. That was the start of Vitamin Angels.
HS- I started to contact people I knew in the vitamin industry and said that I wanted to get these vitamins to children in need in third world countries, and they all said that they had wanted to do that as well but never knew how to get the vitamins to them. For the first ten years, if a company had a mis-formulation or a mislabel, we would get all of that product donated to us. In the first year we distributed 100,000 vitamins, and thought that was wonderful. Ten years later, in 2004, we had agreements with a number of vitamin companies and distributed 24 million vitamins in one year. In 2005 we aimed to distribute 30 million, but the year opened with the Tsunami, then Hurricane Katrina and by the end of that year we had distributed 100 million vitamins to people in need.
L+W- Where does most of your funding come from?
HS- We have never taken an investment from anyone. We had a number of vitamin companies who believed in us, and gave us what we needed for the first ten years. We created our business model out of necessity, and we still use it today. We would get products donated to us, and then piggyback on other organizations’ shipping costs, so we didn’t need to pay for shipping. We would then partner with indigenous organizations who would receive the vitamins, take them from the port to a storage place and distribute them as needed, and we provided training for them. All of our funding was through donations. In 2005, we realized we needed to build a larger staff and organize ourselves in a way that could best sustain the volume of product we were shipping. We decided that although we appreciate all the donations we received from the corporations we were working with, we needed to have a more consistent and reliable supply of vitamins on a regular basis for the children. So we went back to some of the companies and asked them for a long-term commitment (ideally three years). In 2006, we reached two million children, and in 2010 we are reaching 20 million children. Now much of funding comes from our partners because we want Vitamin Angels to become part of what we are, and we want to be part of your marketing. We don’t want you to just write us a check and put our logo on your product. So for example, in November Whole Foods is having Vitamin Angels Month to promote what we do to their customers and vendors.
L+W- What is the most moving moment you’ve had so far with Vitamin Angels?
HS- The most moving moments to me lie in the connection I feel to the children we serve. Seeing the children we provide vitamins come up to me in their villages and hold my hand, or having a mom hand her baby to me and look me in the eye and say thank you. Seeing pregnant women with babies who weigh seven pounds instead of being at risk of losing the baby. A large percentage of children in the countries we serve don’t make it through their first five years because they are so vulnerable and their immune systems are not up to speed. What amazed me was learning that diarrhea can kill a child because their immune systems can’t handle it. We don’t need to spend years doing research- we know exactly what we need to do, we know what nutrients they need. We always say at Vitamin Angels that these children are not dying from a lack of nutrients, but from a lack of commitment. And we want to change that, which is why we strongly encourage long-term commitments from our partners.
L+W- Is there anything else we need to know about Vitamin Angels?
HS- Vitamin Angels is an amazing opportunity to witness drastic changes in a short amount of time, and it only takes 25 cents per year. With a solid commitment in place we have the ability to eradicate vitamin deficiencies in our lifetime, and I believe we are going to do that.