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Pradeep Prabhala: Fighting hunger today and strengthening food security for the long term

Pradeep Prabhala recalls growing up in India as part of an emerging middle-class family. “While we didn’t go hungry, there were weeks when people didn't have enough to eat—the people you work with, see in your apartment building, in the shops and garages. Hunger was a fact of life,” he says. Eventually, it became the guiding force of his professional work.

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McKinsey Partner Pradeep Prabhala

Today, he is a partner in our Agriculture Practice and leads our firm’s initiative for food security in the U.S., which reached crisis proportions this year as the pandemic gripped the country. As businesses closed and unemployment numbers reached new highs, food insecurity among families almost tripled from its previous baseline measure. “Food banks could respond initially to the pandemic because of federal government support,” says Pradeep, “But this aid will dry up. And they traditionally get a lot of their donations from restaurants and retail outlets which are also disappearing. I worry about what will happen in six months.”

After training in India as an engineer, Pradeep worked for 13 years helping public and private sector organizations address the issue of food security and recalls 2008 as a turning point. “There was a global crisis. Demand for food rose as developing countries saw significant economic growth; crops were redirected from feeding people into bio-fuel production, and speculation in commodities drove food prices sky-high,” he recalls. “The global community organized around this issue.”

During this period, Pradeep had the opportunity to work with eight countries in Asia and Africa on their agricultural transition programs. But it was his time working across sub-Saharan Africa that truly opened his eyes. “Here 80 percent of the farmers were smallholders who didn't earn enough income to sustain a living,” he says. "I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to this work.”

Five years later, he moved to the Washington D.C. area with his family and found he could continue with his mission. “In developed countries, equitable access to food—and also to healthy nutrition—is very much a challenge as well, one that impacts productivity, healthcare costs and even the environment,” he said.

McKinsey started its North America food security initiative in 2019 and by this summer, some 50 colleagues across the country were working on a variety of projects on a pro bono basis. They include experts on food systems, operations and supply chains, data analysts, professional instructors and designers. They are on the ground helping food banks optimize their warehouses and logistics, build employees’ skills, and apply analytics to improve distribution and predict and manage spikes in demand.

Other projects take a more holistic, transformative approach: helping the charitable food system become more resilient and strengthen their networks through partnerships, gain greater control over the resources they receive, and improve their client experience. “As an example, a project is underway in which designers are conducting ethnographic research to better understand the food bank experience for users and identify ways to increase reach and reduce stigma,” says Pradeep. “This may mean changing how people pick up food, improving the quality and nutrition of the offerings, and how food banks interact with their communities.”

A McKinsey team is also helping organizations address the structural causes of hunger, such as lack of sustainable jobs and limited safety nets. They are surveying the global landscape, taking in both public and private sectors, for innovative models and interventions.

“In some countries, an insurance company might incent its customers with certain benefits to eat healthier, as an example,” says Pradeep. “With advances in microbiome sequencing, private companies could design foods that are customized to the microbiomes of communities and deliver greater nutrition.”

In addition to working directly with employees on the ground, McKinsey Academy is also building capabilities among the leaders in the system and MGI is building a research foundation for our approaches.

“As a firm, we want to balance short-term help with long-term change,” explains Pradeep. “This means addressing hunger today but also helping organizations develop interventions for tomorrow. Otherwise, in the next crisis, we will be having the same conversation.”

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