Special Report | December 2016 | By Nicole Duncan

The Fight Against Food Deserts

Thousands of neighborhoods don't have access to nutritious foods. These operators are out to change that.
Everytable cofounders Sam Polk (left) and David Foster are bringing healthy, affordable meals into low-income communities. Melissa Barnes
Bookmark/Search this post
Email this story Email this story
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

In the beginning, fast food made its mark colonizing many a barren land. Small towns, highway exits, and poorer neighborhoods were prime opportunities for chains offering affordable meals with a quick turnaround. Today, these rural areas and inner cities have been thoroughly saturated by such brands, and sales are strong as the offerings are more affordable than ever.

There’s just one problem: As quick service has saturated lower-income markets with affordable treats, the same cannot be said of nutritious food purveyors. Healthier food options have become unaffordable in many of these so-called “food deserts.” According to a paper in the academic journal Health Affairs, the price of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese fell 5.44 percent between 1990 and 2007 when adjusted for inflation, whereas the cost of fruits and vegetables rose 17 percent between 1997 and 2003. And while the limited-service industry has invested in more nutritious menu options, many brands specializing in healthier meals come with a significantly higher price tag, which prices them out of lower-income neighborhoods.

There is hope in the fight against food deserts, though. Thanks to some entrepreneurial operators, more low-income areas will soon have access to a balance of affordable options.

Bringing everyone to the table

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial percent of residents have little access to a supermarket or large grocery store. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama targeted childhood obesity with the launch of Let’s Move, with one of the primary missions being to completely eliminate food deserts over the next seven years.

Let’s Move might not have reached that ambitious goal, but bipartisan support of the HFFI, which was first established in 2011 and later cemented under the Farm Bill in 2014, hints that the topic of food deserts will linger even after the Obama administration.

“It feels like there’s a lot of momentum and enthusiasm building around efforts of everyone—ours and many others’—to try and address this issue,” says David Foster, cofounder of the new Los Angeles–based limited-service concept Everytable. “It is going to take a lot of organizations and a lot of people coming together. It’s a huge issue affecting a lot of people.”

Foster, who began his career in private equity, combined forces with Sam Polk in 2014 to address food deserts. Polk also cut his teeth in the finance sector; he was a hedge-fund trader on Wall Street before starting Groceryships, a nonprofit that works within low-income communities. It brings a group of 10 parents together for weekly meetings that teach participants cooking skills, nutrition basics, and more. As part of the program, these families also receive $30 of fresh produce each week.

The seed for Everytable was first planted by Groceryships participants, many of whom worked multiple jobs and had no time to cook.

“We would just sit there and try to break down business models and figure out what we could do to bring healthy food into this neighborhood and solve a lot of the problems for these families, including price. It had to be competitive with fast food and, ideally, significantly cheaper,” Polk says, adding that it also had to be very convenient. “One of the things we’re seeing in our model now is that people buy one meal, but also buy 10 meals for the rest of the week. We loved seeing that, because it means that people can basically do their shopping for the week at a price that’s both affordable but also doesn’t take them nearly as much time as cooking would at home.”

Given Polk and Foster’s financial backgrounds, the two knew they would have to take an unproven path to make Everytable a sustainable business. Unlike Groceryships, it would be for-profit, but unlike many companies, the bottom line would not be the main priority. The trick to making the quality-yet-affordable concept work is its innovative pricing model: The menu will be the same across the board, but the costs will vary by location to ensure food is affordable to all in the communities the brand enters. A bowl at the original South Los Angeles store, in a lower-income neighborhood, averages $4, while the same dish at a downtown location would be roughly double the price.

The first restaurant opened thanks to inroads made with the community through Groceryships. More stores are in the works for L.A., with some in food deserts like the original, and others in more affluent neighborhoods.

“We did not want to go out and set up a Banana Republic–Old Navy, affluent-budget model. The ethos of this company is about the equal value of every single life and every single community, even though that’s not often the case recognized in the broader culture,” Polk says. “I personally would go into fast-casual places like Tender Greens and Sweetgreen and Lemonade and be wowed by the aesthetic experience and the customer service and the food presentation. And I would know that that is not available in lower-income communities.”

At Everytable, Cold Bowl options include Vietnamese Chicken Salad and a BBQ Picnic bowl, while Pozole Rojo (a pork and hominy dish) and Cajun Blackened Fish are among the Hot Bowls. Several options are gluten-free and vegetarian; there are also two kids’ meals. Everytable estimates that the average production cost of a meal is $3.85, so even the reduced price earns the business some profit, albeit with tight margins.

To keep operating costs low, Everytable uses a central facility and produces its meals in bulk. The stores have a small footprint (about 500–800 square feet), and while customers can eat in the store, the majority pick up their ready-to-go meals.

This operational simplicity means that only two staff members are needed on-site at a time. As part of its sustainability model, Everytable hires from the neighborhood.

“We don’t use volunteers mostly because we really wanted to make this a purely sustainable business that didn’t rest on subsidies or free labor. Local hiring for each store, especially from low-income communities, is incredibly important to us,” Polk says. “For example, in the first store, we hired one guy from the Rightway Foundation, which is a foundation that supports foster kids aging out of the system.” Now that Everytable has a relationship with Rightway, Polk hopes to hire more people through that program.

Everytable may be a fledgling concept, but the care and consideration with which it was founded suggests the potential for success and expansion. Operators with a purposeful plan can enter food deserts and create a viable model. Still, those markets are hardly low-hanging fruit. Both Polk and Foster established Everytable because they were compelled to effect real change. For Polk, food-focused documentaries, particularly A Place at the Table, incited him to start Groceryships; Foster, in turn, was inspired by Polk’s work at Groceryships.

From local to national

The altruistic drive might not be commonplace in foodservice yet, but perceptions are changing.

“America is one of the few places in the world that doesn’t have a tradition of feeding people well and inexpensively,” says fine-dining chef Daniel Patterson.

In late 2014, Patterson and chef and food-truck trailblazer Roy Choi announced plans to take on traditional fast food with a healthier alternative. This past January, the first location of their brainchild Locol opened in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles—about half an hour south of Everytable’s first location—followed by a second in Oakland just a few months later. But while Everytable sells entrées that would fit better in the fast-casual category, Locol’s cuisine falls somewhere between traditional fast food and Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck. It’s a mix of staples like burgers and chicken “nugs” but with Latin and Asian influences, which are apparent in dishes like the Noodleman bowl (with ginger, chile, and lime) and Carnitas, Egg & Cheese “Brekkie” sandwiches.

While these dishes might sound too similar to standard fast food for a health halo, recipe tweaks improve nutritional content without dampening flavor. For example, the burger patties are a blend of beef, grain, and soy, which make for a hearty meal, albeit one with less animal protein. The buns are thinner than the fast-food default, and each burger boasts plenty of greens.

“If you go to Mexico and South America and the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, there are long-cook dishes—they use more grains and vegetables than meat. The whole way of eating is much more sustainable when you get to that street-level kind of cooking,” Patterson says. “I think of our cooking at Locol as coming out of those traditions and adapting them to the style of American fast food.”

He adds that the operating model is still being refined; after all, he and Choi “can’t really use the playbook of what other fast-food restaurants have done.” Unlike Everytable, Locol does its cooking in-house, and Patterson says they are still rethinking how to train people, make the food, and standardize the operation.

Locol is off at a quick clip with two stores and a food truck already open, plus buzz around new locations in East Oakland and San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Still, Patterson emphasizes that the brand will hold its promise to serve communities high-quality, low-cost foods above expedient growth. The restaurant has been open less than a year, and as Patterson points out, even McDonald’s didn’t have it all figured out so quickly.

Indeed, the foundation that Locol is laying breaks the fast-food mold. For example, Patterson says, it is not seeking employees with a lot of restaurant experience. It may take a little longer to train them and get everything running smoothly, but he says it should create a different sense of culture—a sentiment that rings true for other altruism-minded brands. Locol also plans to fill its corporate-level team with people from the communities it serves.

Patterson and Choi’s fame has put a spotlight on Locol, which has become something of a double-edged sword.

“There’s been a lot of attention on Locol, which is great, but also I think it distorts the natural process of discovery, which takes time. It takes time to keep iterating the food to get it better and better. It takes time to figure out processes, operating procedures, and all of that,” Patterson says. “The ecosystem of the restaurant, all the different things we’re doing, are very, very complicated to get right and to also make money.”

The brand has ambitious expansion plans once a proven, streamlined system is in place. It aims to go toe to toe with the likes of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, and other national chains.

“We want to go everywhere. We want to be next to the highways,” Patterson says. “Wouldn’t it be great when you’re on a road trip to actually have a healthier option? We want to be in malls. There’s a countrywide model that goes all up and down the socioeconomic ladder with people just not eating well.”

For good, for profit

Limited-service restaurants are not the only, and likely not the first, foodservice brands to pursue opportunities in food deserts. When Michelle Obama first announced a food-access plan several years ago, Walmart was one of the first retailers to sign on. Gourmet grocer Whole Foods has also begun opening stores in areas long associated with lower incomes, like New Orleans, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey.

But eradicating food deserts is no small task, as their existence is inextricably linked to other socioeconomic factors and income gaps.

“We didn’t see a big difference in the number of supermarkets and how far people were from them,” says Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist with the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Comparisons can be fuzzy, since the USDA must build models based on data—including census numbers, community surveys, and retailer data—from different years. But even rough estimates reveal that access to food in poorer areas across the nation has not improved.

“We’ve seen it in both [rural and urban] areas,” Ver Ploeg says. “It’s fair to say there are communities on both sides, and even in suburban areas. It’s somewhat surprising.” She adds that a lot of lower-income suburban residents don’t have cars, which gives them even less access to healthy food sources than those in urban environments.

Furthermore, even bargain retailers are finding it challenging to keep a foothold in certain markets. This past January, Walmart—a mainstay of many low-income communities—issued a statement saying it would close 154 stores in the U.S. Whole Foods is still opening stores in poorer areas; earlier this year, a new unit debuted in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, where the median income is roughly $30,000. But according to the Wall Street Journal, the brand’s stock has dropped 15 percent this year, which could make expansion in such markets less feasible. And as the Washington Post reported, these expansions have less to do with philanthropy than future demographic projections wherein wealthier patrons move into low-income areas.

HFFI awards grants to both public and private entities, and since its launch in 2011, public-private partnerships have leveraged $1 billion in grants, loans, tax incentives, and investments from a variety of institutions. A number of states and cities have already put these funds to good use in addressing food access. For example, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, modeled after HFFI, helped develop more than 88 supermarkets and other fresh food retailers.

But even if government funds and grants were available to restaurants, it’s uncertain whether the companies would choose to pursue them. After all, the cofounders at both Everytable and Locol want their concepts to be self-sustaining and for-profit businesses.

“There are definitely people like Locol and Kimbal Musk [with his own collection of community-first restaurant concepts] who are interested in this sector, and we hope that even more folks start providing healthy food in low-income areas,” Polk says. “From our perspective, there are two issues around it. One is, can you create a model that is able to be profitable and scalable at a price point that is really realistic for these families? … And then there are also cultural issues.”

That doesn’t mean Everytable relies solely on its business model to be successful. Groceryships first paved the way for tight community connections. The years spent in South L.A. helped Polk develop relationships with the community, including church leaders, hospitals, and other nonprofits. Laying the groundwork has set the restaurant up for success. For this reason, Everytable wants to first focus its growth in Los Angeles, where it has those deep ties. The hope is to have 10–15 locations in the pipeline by the end of next year, with every food-desert location having a counterpart in a wealthier neighborhood.

Although Locol is still working out the nuts and bolts, Patterson says the eventual goal is for the brand to serve as an example for other quick serves.

“We hope to provide a model. If we succeed and thrive, then our hope is that other people will see that it’s really a solid model from a business perspective, as well as from a social and cultural perspective,” he says. “The focus almost universally seems to be on profit and not so much on improving people’s lives, so what we hope is that by succeeding, we can show that those two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one can feed the other and strengthen a business over time.”