By: Caroline Wallace, Christine Forest, Kelsey Hall

The Problem

For many low income families in major cities such as New York, fresh produce is an infrequent sight at the dinner table.

The challenge starts outside of the kitchen with accessibility. Since most of the produce is not grown locally, it is costly for stores to bring it to these urban areas. These costs can be easier for large companies to fund, but is more challenge for smaller, local stores. Either way, people living in these communities often cannot afford the produce at market price when it is available. So they do not purchase it, which in turn results in a reduced incentive for the stores to stock it in the first place.

The problem continues inside the kitchen. Once produce is brought into the home, it will often go bad quickly if it is not used, resulting in wasted food and wasted money. These problems are a often result of improper storage and a lack of climate control.

The solution must take place in both places.

Outside the Kitchen: Sourcing and Accessibility

1/ Accessibility of Grocery Stores

An obvious first step is to get access to healthy foods into these low income communities. The Food Trust highlights the importance of having local access to supermarkets. Some of these low income communities don’t have access to grocery stores at all, as the insurance premiums are too high, keeping the companies from opening local stores. New York City offers tax incentive programs to help incentivize grocery stores to open in these areas.

2/ Community Gardens and Green Carts

 Photo Credit: Columbia SIPA

Across the boroughs of New York city, you will find fruit and vegetable carts dotting the sidewalks. These food carts are similarly incentivized to place themselves in higher income areas, so the city of New York created the Green Cart program provide access in the lower income areas as well. This program offers 1,000 permits for a new street class of mobile fruit and vegetable vendors in underserved areas. (Columbia SIPA) It not only increases the availability of fresh foods, but also expands economic opportunity, with many immigrant entrepreneurs opening and managing the stands.

Urban farming has been gaining prominence in major cities, similarly as a result of the trending desire for fresh, locally grown produce. Urban farming can range from rooftop farms, indoor greenhouses, to hydroponics and aquaponics. Community gardens are a unique way to approach urban farming in a way that also increases community building, a potential for economic growth and overall opportunity for improved health for the community members. One major challenge is keeping the community gardens open, as the lots are often at risk. Currently, many lots in New York City are set to be replaced with affordable housing.

Increasing access is crucial, but it alone cannot solve the problem. In 2010, the Morrisania section of the Bronx was what is commonly called a food desert. This low-income neighborhood in New York’s least-healthy county had no nearby grocery store, and few places where its residents could easily buy fresh food. A city tax incentive program brought a grocery store to the neighborhood. Yet, purchasing habits did not seem to change.

Photo Credit: Todd Heisler, New York Times

3/ Produce from Grocery Stores

Grocery stores in the US throw out over 43 billion pounds of food each year. There is a clear opportunity to redirect the produce to people in need. France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate it to charities and food banks. (The Guardian) This benefits both the environment, by redirecting waste from landfills, but also to people in need. This provides access to produce to people who would not otherwise have it.

Above: Customers leave an Associated Supermarket on Thursday in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx. The store was built with more than $400,000 of city-funded incentives in an attempt to combat the unavailability of fresh produce in the neighborhood. Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times4/ Psychology of Purchasing Healthy Foods

The problem is not only about successfully getting the healthy foods into the city at an affordable price, it is also a question of desire.  A New York Times article highlights this challenge in an article titled “Giving the Poor Easy Access to Healthy Food Doesn’t Mean They’ll Buy it.”  They reference a study that show that just putting a grocery store in a low income neighborhood will not get people to change their shopping habits. “The cost of food — and people’s habits of shopping and eating — appear to be much more powerful than just convenience.” (Sanger-Katz) It is then also a result of culture and habits. In looking at shoppers with lower income levels in richer communities that have more accessibility to healthy foods, these shoppers still purchased less healthy foods. Their shopping “mimicked that of low-income, less educated people in poorer neighborhoods.”

Inside the Kitchen: Maintenance of Food in the Home

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1/ Compartmentalize

One mistake people often make is storing fruits and vegetables together. This causes produce to spoil more quickly due to the gases given off by neighboring produce. Fruits like apples, melons and apricots are among the worst offenders when it comes to spoiling other produce. Keeping them separate is key. Potatoes, onions, garlic and squash are to be kept in a cool dark environment to ensure a longer life, while tomatoes are to be kept at room temperature. Berries do best in sealed containers and vegetables prefer the cold temperatures of refrigeration. Among the various tips a tricks to keeping produce longer, the underlying solution is specialized compartmentalization.

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2/ Climate control

Produce also needs various combinations of cool air and humidity to be sustained the longest. Companies like Sub Zero and Bosch have developed refrigeration technologies that address the issue of climate control. SubZero provides dual-refrigeration in which they have separate fridge and freezer compressors to maintain ideal conditions for produce. Owners have reportedly seen a 20% increase in the life of their produce.  Bosch, on the other hand, has developed a system called VitaFresh that works with precise climate sensors that automatically maintain a balance of temperature, humidity and air circulation according to the contents of the refrigerator. The technology also has the benefits of preserving vitamins and nutrients of produce.

Opportunities for the Future

Outside the kitchen

Photo Credit: Blue Apron

In recent years, and especially in New York City, food delivery services have taken off. The evolution began with centralized restaurant delivery services and now includes pre-proportioned meal and recipe delivery. Blue Apron is one of the major players of the latter group. They send customers three recipes a week and the ingredients needed, already portioned, for a meal for two or four people. The service costs $60/week for a couple, $140 for a family of four and only covers three meals. Needless to say, these kinds of services are great but costly. If certain alterations were to be made to this service, the product could become an exciting solution for low income families. Blue Apron’s focus is on healthy eating but also on gourmet meals; this alternate service could focus on simple recipes, using whatever ingredients are least expensive in bulk during the corresponding season. The ingredients would not need to be exactly portioned out, decreasing the labor costs on the supplier side. As New York City provides tax incentives for grocery stores and green carts to open in certain impoverished areas, a similar incentive could be extended to the service provider. The end result would be that reasonably priced, healthy ingredients could be delivered directly to low income family homes. Established suppliers could consider adding this plan to their existing model as a part of their philanthropic effort, thus improving their brand reputation in the community.

Inside the Kitchen

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Photo Credit: Back to the Roots

Addressing the issue of produce preservation once it enters one’s home is a twofold solution: 1. restructuring refrigeration, and 2. using available technologies to customize climate control.  We are visualizing a future kitchen in which refrigeration is a series of smart compartments that maintain produce for longer.  Customization of compartments would allow users flexibility depending on their purchasing preferences and ensure an accurate climate control for a variety of produce storing combinations.

Sources

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