Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Convenience is Key for Eating Healthier

Across the country there is a movement to transform our food system into one that promotes health, social equity, and sustainability. This movement is thriving in urban food desert communities where low-income residents are making connections between diet and health and, as a result, are wanting better quality food choices for their families. In response, community organizations have been working to increase access to fresh foods through a variety of food projects such as community gardens, produce stands, farmers markets, veggie boxes (CSAs) and mobile markets. Many of these ventures have received media attention and accolades from public officials, philanthropy, the public health sector and social change organizations. 

People's Community Market (PCM) has roots in this movement through its sister nonprofit, People's Grocery, which has received national attention for its food projects (including the first Mobile Market in the United States which ran from 2003 to 2007). And although PCM has arisen out of this vital movement, much of the reason that PCM is being created is to actually respond to a problem that this movement is facing: satisfying community food demand at a larger scale and in a more convenient way.

The small food projects that tend to characterize the community food movement are often unable to serve the large levels of unmet food demand that exist in under-served neighborhoods (typically ranging between 30-70%). This is largely due to the small size of these ventures. But it's also a matter of being unable to provide a convenient way to buy fresh foods. Most of these offerings only operate one or two days a week and for very limited hours. This requires that residents plan ahead, shift around their schedules and make concerted efforts to get to where the food is located. In the case of veggie boxes, one often has to order in advance, which requires a lot of forethought and actually remembering to make the order. In the case of mobile markets that move from location to location, it requires actually knowing where and when to find the market. 

In addition to being limited by time and location, these projects typically provide a very small assortment of food products, usually just fruits and vegetables. For residents who are trying to buy food across a diversity of categories that include groceries, breads, meats and prepared foods, and are shopping for an entire family for a period of a few days to a week, these projects are far from able to satisfy their shopping needs. Additionally, as many such efforts try to encourage healthier food choices (which can already entail trying out new foods and new ideas) they're often too unfamiliar in the way they operate to effectively encourage the adoption of new food choices.

The best way to increase access to fresh foods and to encourage healthier eating behavior is to make it as easy as possible for a resident to participate. While more and more people want to make healthier food choices, many are unable or unwilling to spend extra time and energy doing so, especially if it entails buying foods that are unfamiliar in variety, flavor or presentation. In a world where people are used to a high level of convenience in everything, providing exceptional convenience is a critical element in addressing food access and health in urban food deserts. These community ventures, though rooted in great values and aligned with a strong vision for a better world, have simply missed the convenience formula and, as a result, are facing big barriers in increasing their impact on local food demands.

People's Community Market is being created to provide a convenience formula that satisfies the full spectrum of food shopping needs in West Oakland. PCM will offer a broad range of products including produce, meat, seafood, cheese/dairy and prepared foods such as soups, pot roasts, gumbos, sandwiches and salads. PCM will offer organic and non-organic products across all food categories, as well as ethnic foods in most categories. And while PCM will be a smaller fresh food pavilion of 10,000 sq ft, it will be large enough to provide ample space for both the products and amenities that are key to a great and convenient customer experience. In addition, PCM will operate 6 days a week, 13 hours a day, and at a central and highly convenient location. 

An important element of PCM's social enterprise model is partnering with community and health organizations to provide consumer education that encourages healthier eating. But equally important to the way PCM will encourage healthy eating is simply being as convenient as possible in all aspects of the convenience formula that residents require. It can already be difficult in our modern food system, where unhealthy foods are so easily available, to make healthy food choices. So shouldn't making choices that are better for health be as easy as making choices that are less healthy, even in neighborhoods that have less food access? By demonstrating strategies for greater convenience in healthy food choices PCM hopes to encourage the community food movement to begin developing ventures that embrace and build on the convenience formula as a cornerstone for how the movement's values make an impact on communities and on the world.