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Health / 2013

Food Truck + Food Desert = Win Win Win!

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Curious Catalyst

Imagine what would happen if a large supermarket chain deployed a small fleet of re-imagined food trucks into the neighborhoods lacking access to fresh, healthy meals - neighborhoods where dialysis centers are popping up faster than the fast food joints that surround them...

Food deserts are the perfect storm of many social, political, and economic factors, not just access. Many families simply can’t afford more nutritious foods, whether from traditional supermarkets or farmers markets, which have become more upscale than democratizing; single-parent or so-called latch-key homes often lack time to prepare truly healthy meals; and years of compounded challenges have meant that many residents of food deserts no longer know how to cook fresh, tasty meals from scratch.

Food trucks in Los Angeles have been the province of the upper-middle classes – serving up specialty foods to those who can track their locations on Twitter via smartphones and word-of-mouth. But if we reframe the basic notion of food trucks, we have the potential to reach populations in need and can deliver much more than just mobile grocers, which are cropping up in places like Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. The massive scale of Los Angeles, prototypical of a mega-city defined by its sprawl, calls for a more versatile solution to address the complex dynamics underlying the health crisis spreading in food deserts.

Enter Curious Catalyst. We’re a unique consultancy – more Swiss Army knife than agency - using agile and lean methodologies, credited for revolutionizing change in technology, to explore and rapidly iterate within urban solution spaces. We believe that the old methods of top-down urban planning are worse than outdated – they’re irresponsible. Our cities are changing so fast that we must use new approaches to experiment, refine, and address real-time, relevant solutions for our communities.

Picture an established supermarket chain, in need of new revenue streams but unwilling to take a chance in less economically-developed neighborhoods. Now, consider the movers and shakers in that community who dream of opening restaurants, sharing recipes, and feeding their families back to top health. Finally, how might we work with the existing Mom and Pop corner stores, who can’t afford to lose business to new markets, even ones that offer healthy alternatives. Until now, no one has considered how to come up with a win-win-win situation. But Curious Catalyst specializes in finding new middle ground, which benefits all stakeholders.

The CC Food Desert Food Truck pilot will explore how to leverage the distribution chain of an established supermarket brand, to offer prices that truly compete with fast food meals for the first time. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, the CC Food Desert Food Trucks will provide a selection of prepared foods to help introduce new flavors and recipes, for families who may not have time to cook. We’ll explore highlighting local LA chefs from different communities who promote simple, delicious, straightforward healthy eating. And, in order not to drive out neighborhood businesses, we will test partnering with existing bodegas and corner stores to set up regular schedules in an effort to drive more business. In the long run, we can even imagine using the trucks to truly catalyze change, letting the supermarket use the existing bodegas as mini-marts while the trucks move on to a new section of the neighborhood!

Given that lack of access to basic nutrition impacts the ability to maintain engagement in education, long-term health forecasts, and stable employment potential, enabling regular access to fresh foods and education around eating habits can rebuild a foundation of wellness in food deserts. A modest investment in offering true food security has major impact later on the cost of medical services provided by the city, as well as the opportunities then available to the residents of lower income neighborhoods. And this kind of health intervention is not only good for us but also a way to fuel social connectedness – food trucks are fun!


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Curious Catalyst is a new consultancy that employs agile and lean methodologies typically associated with disruption in ICT to drive transformation and innovation in urban planning. Composed of a senior corps of emerging platform strategists, Curious Catalyst engages subject matter expertise as well as citizen stakeholders to develop breakthrough MVPs. We use a license model to incentivize project pioneers to open the core of the solutions we develop to other mega-cities. For example, when we design a business model for addressing food deserts in Los Angeles, the plug-and-play core “Experience Blueprint” will be released to other cities for a nominal license fee; this positions the pioneers as leaders in a given area of urban challenge but benefits the broader global community while providing upside to the initial stakeholder. And we provide consulting services for localization and contextual adjustment.

This disruptive business model was developed by founder, Kaz Brecher, as part of an accelerator project at THNK, the new Amsterdam School for Creative Leadership. The members of the Curious Catalyst team have collectively worked on strategy and implementation of solutions for everyone from the Library of Congress to Microsoft, and Disney to Oprah. We’ve done hundreds of agile sprints in emerging platforms, and our expertise is easily applied to the complexities of urban challenges facing Los Angeles.

The company has garnered support from some of the top architects and urban developers in the world, as we’re building our Advisory Board. And as passionate believers in user-centered design, we are committed to genuine collaboration with all constituencies when developing approaches to these solutions.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Since we aren’t investing in long-term infrastructure yet, we’ll approach a passionate Food Truck Pioneer, who’ll let us use their staff and truck; involve a Chef to help strategize on meals and produce; work with a community group, like Farmworks, to navigate existing neighborhood relationships; and we’ll collaborate with a supermarket to test the realities of tapping into their distribution supply chain. We’ll invite participation from food justice Subject Matter Experts, as well as food entrepreneurs, non-food space design thinkers, and citizen stakeholders among others. The goal is to balance orchestration of innovation processes while allowing the emergence of unexpected, community-driven strategies by having the right mix of people.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

As with any lean Minimum Viable Product (MVP), our goal is to learn what resonates in the community and with all stakeholders and what needs to be adjusted – with both qualitative and quantitative data. The food truck is only one method of using a more distributed approach to bringing healthier options into food deserts. So, the primary goal is to demonstrate the potential, both socially and economically, for this method of disrupting the cyclical, endemic challenges that comprise food deserts – bringing access to healthier foods as well as opportunity to gain employment as part of the changing landscape and ecosystem.

In this sprint, we will test several elements of how food trucks promote health and food security in food deserts. These parameters could include: the variety of fresh produce SKUs and prepared meals; whether healthy frozen foods are more easily sampled; ways to collaborate within the existing neighborhood structures with Mom and Pop businesses; possible models for franchise versus scaling a fleet; using rotating trucks to catalyze small bodegas as micro-mart locations for major markets; and the kind of POP materials needed to make the offering attractive and informative.

The sprint may be evaluated on several elements of the test, depending on how we define the MVP: cost of providing an affordable, healthy meal for a family as compared to a fast food option; interest and uptake of these meals; percentage of fresh produce purchased versus prepared food; interest in recipes handed out from the truck; buzz in the neighborhood around the idea and return visits to the truck. Analysis will be conducted at the end of the prototyping phase, with an eye to short-term and long-term scaling indicators.

A successful MVP is one that points the direction for the next sprint, providing new data and discovery about hypotheses, and gains traction from the community around the core proposition. Needless to say, food deserts are not a new problem. And various groups have attempted to make a dent in the issues and impact on Los Angeles. We deeply believe that it’s time for a new approach. So, rather than evaluating this effort merely on what works and what doesn’t in the MVP, Curious Catalyst will consider this a successful sprint if we demonstrate the potential for this new agile urban method to tackling the complexity of the entrenched food desert challenge.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

There is no reason that the simple pleasures and benefits of fresh food that are enjoyed by citizens in Santa Monica can’t be found in any other corner of the city. Like a small house that is expanded room by room, until the wiring is a disastrous fire hazard, the LA sprawl has created pockets of neglect that leave citizens with unequal opportunity and weaker connections to the prosperity that the rest of Los Angeles enjoys.

And childhood obesity is a problem that is having a tremendous impact on not only the state's physical health but also its financial health. According to a report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, California spends more than $21 billion in public and private money on healthcare and other costs because of obesity, which increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases later in life. Access to better basic nutrition tends to prevent longer-term chronic diseases, adding a buffer against the ramifications of lack of insurance.

The CC Food Desert Food Truck project will prove that it’s possible to bring affordable access to fresh, healthy foods into neighborhoods in South or Central Los Angeles through new approaches, while exploring ways that the trucks could deliver even more benefit. For example, a fleet of trucks could: create new jobs, provide education around eating habits and the causes of childhood diabetes and heart disease, offer new flavors and cuisines in areas where fast food is the only option, and create a sense of festivity with a regular schedule, building more social cohesion into neighborhoods.

But this is just the beginning. Los Angeles could fast be positioned as a leading innovator in food security issues, by taking this rapid iteration approach in the context of public/private partnership – testing everything from multi-use trucks (meals combined with basic health monitoring from time-to-time) to franchises for anyone interested in starting a new business. The point is to START! We can’t wait for more task force reports or think tank strategies. Involving residents in creating the city in which they want to thrive would be a success in itself. We give power back to the people, while we facilitate a vision for a healthier Los Angeles.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

The only boarded up buildings in South Central Los Angeles will be the old dialysis centers, a reminder of services no longer needed. Food truck drivers will be as beloved a neighborhood institution as the ice cream truck driver of the 1950s was. The cost of chronic health care needs will have dropped significantly, and more taxpayer dollars can be reallocated to community gardens and planting food forests along parkways.

Los Angeles will see a decrease in rates of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, an increase in high school graduates from neighborhoods formerly known as food deserts, and the proliferation of new small businesses focused on food, from corner stores to restaurants to artisan goods. Disparities in chronic diseases and health outcomes between those living inside and outside of the food deserts of the past would be indistinguishable.

As basic nutritional needs are met in every corner of the city, today’s young people and families will be better able to contribute to their own prosperity – pursuing educational and employment opportunities, giving back in their own neighborhoods, and shaping the next 50 years of Los Angeles.