2021 Person of the Year: Howard Schiffer, Vitamin Angels

Each year, WholeFoods Magazine recognizes an individual (or a group, as in the frontline heroes of 2020) who has made the most substantial impact on our industry over the past 12 months. In 2021, a year marked by extreme hardships for so many, members of the natural products industry stepped up and did all they could to support people around the globe. And for many of us, the inspiration to go above and beyond has come from the words and works of Howard Schiffer, Founder and President of Vitamin Angels, who has served as a role model and source of inspiration in our industry for decades. For all the work he has done over the years, and his focus on helping those in desperate need throughout the pandemic, Schiffer is our 2021 Person of the Year.

Under Schiffer's leadership, Vitamin Angels continues to grow and expand, working toward a better future for all. ©Vitamin Angels

Vitamin Angels called for increased action in mid-2020, launching a new unified effort, called Healthy Futures Initiative, to address the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities in the U.S. and abroad. With health systems overwhelmed and food systems disrupted due to the pandemic, families in need were put at an even greater risk for malnutrition, and Vitamin Angels mobilized to address the urgent problem. At the time, Schiffer stressed, “Our work has never been more important than right now.” And companies responded, proving that when an industry unites, much can be accomplished. The effort raised enough to fund over 1.7 million nutrition interventions, with DSM, Barlean’s, Rainbow Light, Lief Labs, The Vitamin Shoppe, Indena, AIDP, BioCell Collagen and many more contributing.

VA is working together to help pave the way for global acceptance of prenatal vitamins and minerals. ©Vitamin Angels – Marie Arago HN18

The work continues, as the need remains. “COVID-19 has had undeniable effects on the communities we serve,” Schiffer tells WholeFoods Magazine. “Government health programs have been delayed or postponed. Food supply chains have been disrupted. The need for our nutrition programs is now greater than ever. We have been working alongside our program partners on the ground to respond to the changing landscape to deliver services in a safe and effective manner. We are seeing unparalleled acts of bravery, kindness, and resilience from our global community of health workers. From curbside delivery of our prenatal vitamins and minerals to expecting moms in Iowa, to nutritional advice distributed via mobile carriers in South Africa, around the world our community and supply chains continue to adapt so that every child everywhere has the opportunity for a healthy start.”

Schiffer’s work helping others (and coordinating with partners to ensure the greatest positive impact) dates back decades prior to the pandemic. “Nothing in my life has ever been linear,” Schiffer shares. “Looking back now it honestly feels like I was led to start Vitamin Angels. My first passion in my early 20s was becoming a lay midwife and joining the homebirth movement. It was there I learned about how important nutrition and supplementation can be for a pregnant woman and her baby. When I was 30 I got staphylococcus septicemia and came very close to dying. The doctors said I had a 10% chance to live. I saw how thin the thread is that connects us to this life. I came out of that experience knowing that life is short and I needed to do something important. The vitamin and natural products industry gave me the experience and connections to start Vitamin Angels. An earthquake in Southern California in 1994 provided the catalyst, when a relief organization asked my vitamin company to provide vitamins for the relief effort. Mark Twain once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why. When I founded Vitamin Angels, I felt like I had finally found my why.”

Working as a lay midwife in his 20s, Schiffer learned the importance of nutrition and supplementation for pregnant women and babies. © Vitamin Angels.

While the path led Schiffer where he was meant to be, it wasn’t always easy. One challenging time came around 2005, when Schiffer was pursuing a major partnership for Vitamin Angels with one of the biggest relief groups in the world. “I knew this would give us major credibility and visibility,” he recalls. “Negotiations took most of the year, but by late fall we had a deal in place. We would be supplying vitamin A to their country offices all over the world. This would allow us to double the number of children we were reaching! I was thrilled.”

Thrilled…but nearly thwarted. “As the year ended, I kept trying to find out when we could ship the product out. I had gotten quotes and the ocean freight costs were going to be around $25,000. For Vitamin Angels this was a huge expense, almost a third of our total funds. But being able to impact this many children felt worth it. We went into 2006 still not hearing from this relief group. I kept reaching out and was told it takes time to start a new partnership. Months dragged on and by summer I still hadn’t heard anything. Finally in mid-September I got the call, they were ready. My contact asked when their country offices would begin receiving product. I estimated it would be by mid to late November. The line was silent and then my contact said ‘This won’t work.’ She explained that distributions had already been scheduled and they needed product in the country by mid October. I explained this was impossible. The only way we could do this would be to ship everything out by air freight. All I heard was ‘Okay!’ I got off the phone, knowing air freight costs would be over $70,000, most of the cash we had. Even though it felt incredibly risky, we decided to ship everything out by air freight. At the end of the day we knew that reaching these children was more important than our bank balance.”

In 2020, the Healthy Futures Initiative was launched to address the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities in the U.S. and abroad. © Vitamin Angels – IA19

For every hardship, there’s a lesson to be learned. And in this case, Schiffer learned that when you have setbacks or struggles, focusing on your “why” makes all the difference. “You always have to remember what you’re here to do,” he shares. “I was getting all caught up in our finances and forgetting that reaching more children with life-changing vitamins and minerals was our mission. The other thing I learned is that you always have to look at the long game. Over time this relief organization became one of our largest implementation partners globally. We now work with them in countries all over the world. And we are now their second largest product donor! Together we have been able to reach tens of millions of children.”

The people Schiffer has met along the way, too, have motivated him. “On my first trip to India I was visiting one of our partners, Dr. Doshi, in his eye hospital in this small rural town, Chikhodra,” Schiffer recalls. “On our second day there he took me on a tour of the hospital and on the second floor, at the end of a long hallway, I met a young dad who was holding his baby boy. I was told his son was 16 months old. Being a dad myself, I could see how much this dad adored his son. But as I looked into the boy’s eyes, I saw a cloudy opacity. Dr. Doshi told me the boy was blind. The cause was vitamin A deficiency. In that moment the seriousness of our work truly became crystal clear. This is why everyone who works at Vitamin Angels goes out into the field to meet the women and children we are serving. I want everyone to know first-hand how important our work is.”

“Honestly, my most cherished moments are when I’m in a small town or village and a mom tells me thank you,” Schiffer says. © Vitamin Angels – Rohit Jain IN19

Experiences like that change people’s lives…the people being helped, and the helpers. “Honestly, my most cherished moments are when I’m in a small town or village and a mom tells me thank you,” Schiffer says. “When I listen to these women tell their stories, when I hear how scary it is for them when their children get sick and there’s no doctor or clinic around, I can feel our shared humanity. We may not speak the same, but our emotional connection with our children is identical. For 27 years it’s the one thing I hear women tell me time and time again that I cherish the most: ‘Please keep coming back!’”

Do One Thing
For those who feel like they can’t make a difference, the Vitamin Angels website says: It’s not necessary to fix everything to make a difference. It’s enough to find a way to make an impact in one specific area. Not only does it effect change, it also inspires and encourages others to join in.

Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of childhood blindness, but supplementation can help prevent
deficiency. © Vitamin Angels – Sophia Billikopf MX18

What are some of the ways businesses both large and small  in our industry can help out? Schiffer answers that question with a powerful story: “[Bestselling author] Marshall Karp called me in 2002 needing help to get vitamins to an orphanage in Romania. I later learned that Marshall’s daughter had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The hours he spent waiting to know if she was safe were the longest and hardest in his life. When he found out his daughter was alive, he decided he would not get out of bed the next day unless he could do one thing to make this world a better place. That commitment led him to several doctors who had acquired a vitamin donation they wanted to donate to an orphanage. The logistical challenges led him to Vitamin Angels. When he found out what we were doing and that it only cost 25 cents to reach a child for one year with vitamin A, and that this could prevent a child from going blind, he said ‘So if you had more money, you could reach more children?’ Marshall had worked in advertising and he ended up introducing us to a pharmaceutical organization that eventually became our first major corporate partner. This introduction resulted in funding our India program. We now reach millions of children and women there every year. It all started with one phone call and a simple commitment to do something to make this world a better place. Some of our largest partners in the vitamin industry started off with a $5,000 donation. They’re now donating high six figure amounts every year! Just do something and you never know where it will lead.”

One thing it often leads to, though, is greater loyalty from your consumers—and your team. “It has been shown over and over again that consumers would rather purchase from a company that they share values with,” says Schiffer. “Having a purpose gives people another way to want to come to work and they’ll be more productive. When your company is attached to a cause you can attract better talent and retention rates are higher. Wall Street is now demanding that companies have ESG [environmental, social and governance] strategies in place before they IPO. And it’s been proven that companies with purpose have higher valuations for their shareholders. Especially for millennials and younger generations, they want to be connected to a company that is doing something to make their world a better place. The world is changing and people now realize that business has a vital role to play in helping to solve societal problems.”

The team at NOW Foods, which was a founding supporter of VA, has donated over 60 million vitamin A doses. Image courtesy of NOW Foods.

A Beautiful Ripple Effect
Industry companies are happy to help spread the word about the major impact of their efforts with Vitamin Angels. Jim Emme, CEO, NOW Health Group, which is a founding supporter of Vitamin Angels, stresses the importance: “An estimated 190 million children under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD), one of the leading causes of childhood blindness. Yet for a child aged 1-5, just one 200,000 IU capsule of vitamin A twice a year can prevent vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A is critical for healthy vision, bone growth and normal bodily development, and plays a key role in the development of a child’s immune system. Approximately half of the children who go blind from VAD each year die from infections and other illnesses that don’t have to be life-threatening. Providing this crucial nutrient has a tremendous impact on the lives of millions of at-risk children.” To make a difference, on NOW’s 40th anniversary in 2008, the company pledged to donate 40 million vitamin A doses to Vitamin Angels by 2020. “When that commitment was met ahead of schedule in 2014,” Emme says, “NOW donated an additional 20 million doses.”

Another long-time partner, Fresh Thyme Market, is marking the 8th year of its December round up campaign, in which Fresh Thyme customers have the opportunity to round up their total purchase to the nearest dollar to benefit Vitamin Angels. “To date Fresh Thyme and our customers have donated over $1 million to help provide life changing vitamins to children and mothers locally and across the world,” shares Jonathon Lawrence, Fresh Thyme’s Sr. Director of Grocery & Natural Living. “Fresh Thyme also commits $0.25 for every Fresh Thyme branded vitamin and supplement sold 365 days a year to Vitamin Angels and their partners.”

Fresh Thyme and its customers have donated over $1 million to help provide life-changing vitamins to children and mothers. Image courtesy of Fresh Thyme.

For Lawrence, there’s the personal impact as well. “I was first introduced to Howard and Vitamin Angels at Expo West in 2012. I had just had my first child and was sitting in Angel
Stadium with tears rolling down my eyes after seeing the impact Vitamin Angels was having on the lives of children across the world—children who looked just like my kids but did not have access to so many of the things we take for granted today. After hearing Howard talk and seeing the passion that he had to make the world a better place, I knew that as long as I have the ability to support him and his team I would. It takes a
special person to dedicate their lives to helping others, and I have an incredible amount of respect and admiration for him and am happy to support them in any way we can.”

Schiffer certainly has a way of inspiring others. “Howard’s passion and drive have been infectious,”says Edward Lee, Ph.D., CEO and Founder AIDP, Inc., which has been a supporter of Vitamin Angels from the beginning. “We have been in awe of all that Vitamin Angels has achieved. It is a true credit to Howard and his team. Thank you Howard, for making a difference in people’s lives. AIDP is honored to be associated with Vitamin Angels.”

“Our industry has the opportunity to impact health equity on a global scale,” says Schiffer, shown here with the Vitamin Angels team. ©Vitamin Angels

Sharing that feeling, Michael Bitensky, Co-Founder and CEO, Goli, says, “Howard continues to inspire us with his passion and hard work towards such an important cause, child malnutrition. By founding Vitamin Angels, he has created an organization that helps millions of children annually. Goli’s partnership with Vitamin Angels helps us carry out our mission of making the world healthier. Howard has done something that we try to achieve every single day, making the world better.”

Since inception, Bitensky adds, Goli’s mission has been to make living a healthy lifestyle accessible to everyone. “We take tremendous pride in our 1-for-1 grant with Vitamin Angels to help supply essential vitamins to children in need. Malnutrition is the number one cause of preventable childhood death. With every purchase made on Goli.com, Goli donates a 6-month supply of essential vitamins to a child in need. Through this commitment, Goli has been able to help millions of children globally. We look forward to continuing to pursue this life changing work with the Vitamin Angels organization.”

Evidence-based nutrition interventions like vitamin A and prenatal vitamins and minerals have been proven to save lives. ©Vitamin Angels – Marie Arago HN18

On the retail side, Diana Lucas, Sprouts Vice President of Vitamins and Body Care, shares: “Sprouts believes in the Power of Vitamins and has supported the efforts of Vitamin Angels to prevent newborn mortality and childhood blindness due to vitamin A deficiency since 2013. We have partnered in various fundraising efforts during this time. This year, Vitamin Angels is a Sprouts Healthy Communities grant recipient. Since the inception of our partnership, we have impacted more than 12.5M mothers and children together.”

Many of Sprouts team members have had the opportunity to see Vitamin Angels work during field partner trips to Haiti, Peru, Mexico and Honduras, Lucas adds. “Through these trips, we were able to see and hear firsthand accounts from mothers, fathers, and children on how taking vitamins can reverse many of the ailments caused by malnutrition. Howard and Vitamin Angels give hope to families to achieve goals that could not have been possible due to the severity of their malnutrition. Traveling with Howard is an inspiration as you see how his dedication to help the most vulnerable in the U.S. and across the globe truly is making a difference. Howard’s love for helping mothers and children is an inspiration and it is magnificent to witness the positive impact he has in the communities he serves. Over the 25-plus years of his work, Howard’s love and unwavering commitment to the cause has saved countless lives through the support of Vitamin Angels’ efforts.”

For just 25 cents, Vitamin Angels can reach a child for one year with vitamin A, helping to ward off deficiency. ©Vitamin Angels – Marie Arago HN18

Industry Insight: 2022

As we move into 2022, what are we in the natural products industry collectively getting right…and what could we do better to help achieve our goals of enhancing wellness for all? Schiffer’s take: “What we’re getting right is that this industry has developed products that can play a centerpiece in improving global health. The research is here; evidence-based nutrition interventions like vitamin A and MMS (prenatal vitamins and minerals) have been proven to save lives and promote healthy outcomes. The potential impact is incredible. On the flip side, health access is not equal for all. Nor is access to nutritious food. Our industry has the opportunity to impact health equity on a global scale. Innovation and leveraging an NGO as a strategic business partner is key.”

Heather Wainer, Publisher of WholeFoods Magazine, also felt the full impact of working with Vitamin Angels when she went on trips to Honduras and Peru, working directly with the moms and children (hear more from Heather about her experiences on page 4). “I treasure my involvement with Vitamin Angels,” she shares. “As a smaller company, we can’t contribute financially the way the big companies do, but we’re proud to contribute what we can, and to spread the word, raising awareness about Howard’s works, and Vitamin Angels initiatives and the latest news from the organization.”

So what is the latest news? Looking ahead, Vitamin Angels continues to grow and expand, and work toward a better future for all. “Alongside the global public health community, we are working together to help pave the way for global acceptance of MMS (prenatal vitamins and minerals),” Schiffer says. “We are currently conducting landscape surveys, increasing our monitoring and evaluation, and holding education conferences to encourage adoption and adherence to MMS. We’ve also been doing regional and national meetings to create an enabling environment to introduce MMS on a national scale in the countries we’re working in. Recently, the WHO added MMS to the Essential Medicines List (EML) documenting a standard, evidence-based formulation. And we’re actively working with our corporate partners on innovative ways we can further improve access to essential vitamins and minerals here in the U.S. and around the world.” WF

Photo courtesy of Vitamin Angels.