Friday, July 19, 2013

College Students and Veggie Vans to the Rescue in Food Deserts

Now is the time of the year when those of us who are lucky enough to live in areas with a lot of fresh produce can enjoy nature's bounty. Below is a photo taken this past Wednesday of a produce stand at the Amherst Farmer's Market and the bigger one takes place on Saturdays.

However, there are many locations throughout the U.S. that are known as food deserts, with the USDA defining a food desert as: parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.
The term food desert applies to lower income areas that don't have easy access to grocery stores with fresh, affordable food. The food desert standard according to the USDA is that—among other factors—20 percent of its households have no vehicle and live more than a half-mile from a supermarket.

The USDA has even come up with a food desert locator and you can access the map directly.

Our local New England Public Radio station not that long ago aired a fabulous two-part series on food deserts with a focus on the Springfield, Massachusetts area.

We know that the consumption of nutritious food, especially in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, affects health and longevity as well as children's ability to focus and learn.

But if urban dwellers or even rural dwellers cannot easily access fresh produce what can be done?

Having spent a lot of time in Sweden, on my sabbatical this year, and on several other occasions, as well, which I have written about on this blog, I was continually amazed at how accessible good fresh food was.  In fact, during my most recent stay, May 25-June 25, 2013, in Gothenburg, my apartment complex had views of trees and a fountain and was right above the Tempo store. I often walked a few blocks to a big fresh produce market, however, since the selection there was even greater.

College students, and recent grads,  with support from faculty and their communities, have been researching possible solutions to the food desert problem in the U.S., and, according to the USDA, there are thousands of census tracts in the U.S. that qualify as food deserts!

I was impressed by these Northeastern  University grads, who have a business model, and are even using Kickstarter for their fresh produce bus initiative in the Boston area, with nice recent coverage by The Boston Globe.

Lafayette College, in Easton, PA, which is my husband's alma mater, through its Tech Clinic, which focuses on having students and faculty solve real-world problems, has been focusing on both community gardens and a veggie truck, with the initial launch this past week. The veggie truck is modeled after an ice cream truck but the produce is distributed free! Its launch was covered by the Easton Patch  and a local blogger, Christina Georgiu, also  did some great coverage.  Those involved did not know if anyone would show up for the fresh veggies, that are locally grown. Cristina noted that more than 90 percent of the vegetables were eagerly snatched up in about 15 minutes!
 The veggie truck in Easton, PA - even the Mayor showed up in his long-sleeved white shirt!
Now some challenges remain, which include how to make this model sustainable and  how to determine an equitable distribution policy.  I hear that even a recipe book is planned!

I am sure that the students and faculty will use their critical thinking and analytical skills to figure it all out! In the meantime, congrats on the great initiatives that help communities!

As an operations researcher and management scientist, who with students, has researched even perishable food and sustainability, I love to see positive ideas and logistics in action!

Coincidentally, yesterday, while at the Isenberg School of Management, I ran into Dr. Stephen Jefferson, one of my terrific Sport Management colleagues, who told me that he grew up in the West Ward of Easton and it was a Lafayette College grad who served as his basketball coach and who inspired him to go to college! I told him about the veggie van and he was so pleased since he still has family there.

And, speaking of operations research and management science (ORMS),  along with food distribution for healthy communities, I would like to also give a plug to one of my colleagues, Professor Senay Solak, whose advisor at Georgia Tech was Dr. Ellis Johnson, renowned in OR. He, along with one of our MBA students, did a project for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.