Food deserts are a major problem in America. Geographic areas are designated as food deserts based upon location, demographics and distance to fresh food markets. Americans living in food deserts often need to travel far out of their neighborhoods in order to obtain fresh food products. Food deserts are more prevalent in areas with lower socioeconomic status which forces individuals already on a tight budget to travel for healthy food. As a result these individuals often develop maladaptive eating habits that are detrimental to their health. These populations also experience significant health issues related to nutrition, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Corner stores provide the majority of food for individuals living in food deserts, which sell mostly convenience and unhealthy food options. Even if fresh food is available, additional limiting factors still exist, such as knowing how to cook, having adequate time to cook, or having a functional kitchen.
Efforts to promote healthy food options in food deserts are primarily focused on increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But, proximity to fresh food is not the sum of the issue. Evidence demonstrates that improving access in food deserts may not be effective in improving actual health outcomes. The barriers to a healthy diet extend far beyond access, even opening supermarkets in food deserts has been shown to have minimal impact on nutritional composition of diets. It may be wishful thinking to believe that putting fresh produce in front of those without the ability to cook will result in healthy cooking habits, weight-loss, or improved health outcomes. Ideally, solutions should solve the issue of getting nutritious foods to those who need them, while addressing of the multitude of other factors that make cooking difficult.
In order to understand what influences eating behavior, research should focus on understanding food procurement through the lens of consumerism. It is no secret that convenience reigns supreme. In food deserts, the perceived convenience of meals is a major driving factor for consumer purchases. Studies have shown that convenience means more than saving time, it encompasses the physical and psychological efforts associated with planning and preparing meals. Most people perceive healthy eating to be a burden because it truly is. The less people know about cooking the more impossible the task. A 2010 literature review examining consumption of convenience foods, found that cooking skills, nutrition knowledge, and available time to cook were among the important drivers of how much processed foods people consumed. Another study showed education and nutrition knowledge are strongly associated with preference for healthy food across income groups. Even with adequate access to nutrition dense products, the practice of healthy food preparation is unsustainable without basic understanding of recipes, ingredients, kitchen tools, and cooking techniques.
Targeting perceived inconveniences of cooking can help encourage individuals to prepare more healthful meals at home. In the past decade, meal kit delivery services such as BlueApron or HomeChef have provided a proof of concept for convenient, healthy food delivery. Over time, these companies have gathered a following of inexperienced cooks hoping to improve their diets through fresh home-cooked meals. By delivering instructional recipes and exact ingredients that are fresh and portioned, they have been steadily “eating” into supermarket revenues around the world. These services however, are not without pitfalls. The price of some of the subscription delivery programs are prohibitory for many Americans. Delivery requires costly refrigeration and labor, and is also not ideal in a lot of neighborhoods where unattended packages are prone to theft. Environmental concerns have also been raised about excess packaging waste as each ingredient is individually wrapped.
Looking to improve upon this type of solution for lower income families, students from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health founded EatWell Boston, a non-profit organization aimed at providing healthful meals to low-income individuals and families. EatWell Boston seeks to make healthy eating more available by offering single pot recipe meal kits that require only 30 minutes. The recipes, designed by local chefs, are able to serve a family of 4, and the meals focus on both convenience and health. All ingredients are minimally or non-processed and instructions needed to make the meal a reality are included. Each kit sells at an affordable price of $15, is food stamp eligible, and can be picked up at pop-up kiosks by local subway stations and bus stops. It is rumored EatWell plans to adopt a franchise model to expand its services to any food desert in the country.
“You have to provide all the components — affordable, accessible ingredients, clear and simple instructions — and then make it taste good, make it fit the preferences of the community, then people will eat well,” said Dan Wexler, co-founder of EatWell Boston. “By selling our meal kits from a convenient kiosk right on the commute home from work, we can eliminate the time and travel of grocery shopping, not to mention the hassle of meal planning.”
What will be most impactful about this service is that it helps bring families into the kitchen and provide cheap, easy, quick and nutritious meals at home. To truly benefit public health, we must make healthy cooking and eating less physically and mentally demanding. Organizations such as EatWell have the potential to break down the psychological and logistical barriers that prevent low-income individuals from entering the kitchen, and lay down the groundwork for long term behavioral changes. By providing access to healthy fresh ingredients and providing educational support, EatWell makes staying the course of a healthy lifestyle easier — something we must do to make sustainable behavioral change.