New Gerber Foundation leader ‘deeply invested’ in advancing research on infants and children

FREMONT — The Gerber Foundation has a new top advocate for enhancing the quality of life of infants and young children who shares a deeply personal connection to the organization’s mission.

Sara Hohnstein joined the Fremont-based private foundation this month as its new executive director, stepping into a role “pioneered” by Catherine Obits, who is capping off a 23-year career and retiring at the end of the year. 

In stepping into the position, Hohnstein says she’s committed to listening and learning from the foundation’s partners and trustees “to ensure that the Gerber Foundation stays rooted in its rich tradition of excellence but nimble enough to respond to our ever-changing world.”

She comes to Gerber Foundation with more than 10 years of experience on both sides of the grantmaking process and as a social worker. Most recently, she served as the vice president of operations and applied projects for the Issachar Fund, a Grand Rapids-based private foundation focused on the intersection of science, big questions, and human flourishing. She also previously ran a community outreach center in Omaha, which included a food pantry, health clinic and case management services.

“I have sat in the seat of both the grantmaker and the grant applicant,” Hohnstein told MiBiz. “I think that has given me great respect for people that are trying to make a positive impact in the world and need grant funds to do it. Therefore, I hope that when people encounter the Gerber Foundation, they find us to be transparent and clear about our focus areas and processes and a helpful resource for their work.”

Barbara Ivens, president of the board of directors at the Gerber Foundation, cited Hohnstein’s knowledge of all facets of the grant process as a differentiating factor and a “key quality that she brings to the position.” 

“Sara’s experience in managing the grant life cycle, from applicant inquiry to final report, and her budgeting and financial management experience position (her) to be successful in this position,” Ivens said. “Sara brings a curiosity and fresh perspective that will help ensure the Foundation fulfills its mission.”

One aspect of the Gerber Foundation that piqued Hohenstein’s interest was its emphasis on both national-level research and local community-based activities, which coincided with her previous experiences.

“The focus of the foundation, enhancing the quality of life of infants and young children, was extremely attractive to me,” she said. “Supporting research and programs that aim to give children the best possible start in life is incredibly important and something I feel deeply invested in.” 

That personal investment came into focus a few years ago for Hohnstein, who as a first-time mother gave birth early to twin sons despite a healthy pregnancy. After the preterm births, Hohnstein and her husband became intimately familiar with the Gerber Foundation Neonatal Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. 

Hohnstein said her family was “incredibly fortunate” to access high-quality made possible in part because of the Gerber Foundation’s $5 million investment that helped establish the newborn intensive care unit at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. 

“Having the personal experience of being a ‘NICU mom’ helps me to feel personally connected to the research we fund, as well as to know what is at stake,” Hohnstein said. “Babies born prematurely are vulnerable and often face precarious futures. I feel honored to work for an organization that supports the ongoing research focused on increasing the knowledge base of how-to best care for infants and young children.” 

Now, she has the opportunity to parlay her personal and professional experiences into leading an organization whose mission “I am deeply committed to.” 

Serving as a catalyst

Originally established in 1952 as the Gerber Baby Foods Fund by Daniel Gerber, Sr. and the Gerber Products Co., the organization evolved its investment focus over the years, starting broadly with awards to a range of community organizations involved in agriculture, education, infant care and youth programs. 

When Gerber Products Co. sold to Sandoz Ltd. in 1994, the Gerber Foundation became a separately endowed private foundation under the moniker it has today. 

As of last year, the foundation has given $123 million to recipients across the world. In 2021 alone, Gerber Foundation awarded nearly $4.2 million in grants, including almost $362,000 in West Michigan, according to its annual report.

The foundation ended 2020 with nearly $85.8 million in total net assets, per its most recent filings with the IRS. 

About 70 percent of the Gerber Foundation’s grantmaking goes to support applied research on health and nutritional issues affecting infants and young children, with a focus on identifying solutions to common issues and advancements in the prevention and treatment of disease. The foundation also supports pediatric research on environmental health hazards. 

As well, Gerber Foundation issues grants supporting youth programs dealing with health, literacy, education and life enrichment within a four-county area of West Michigan, including Newaygo, Muskegon, Lake, and Oceana counties.

The foundation also awards competitive college scholarships to students at select high schools in a similar footprint across the region. 

As Hohnstein sees it, Gerber Foundation’s work in the region — and especially with funding research projects at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, including a $350,000 grant last year — has helped boost the growing cluster of medical research and innovation along the Medical Mile in Grand Rapids. 

“The medical research that happens in our area is truly impressive,” she said. “We have funded research projects at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and continue to build a strong relationship with them. We also encourage other entities in our area to submit research concept papers to us if they are working in our focus areas.”

Board President Ivens echoed that sentiment, noting the Foundation wants to “act as a catalyst for new ideas/research that improve infant and young child nutrition, care and development, and contribute to the knowledge of the impact of nutrition on their health and development.”

Now Hohnstein plans to apply the knowledge learned throughout her career to help the Gerber Foundation live up to its promise. 

“We will also be listening closely to our partners, evaluating research, and continuously learning,” Hohnstein said. “We want to stay at the forefront of pediatric health and nutrition research and proactively engage in our community.”