If you’ve ever tried foraging at a local convenience store or subsisting on roadside diners, you know what’s it like to live in a food desert. More than 23 million people, in fact, live in these so-called deserts, poor communities with little access to grocery stores (more than one mile away in urban areas, or 10 miles in rural areas). Many of these areas are plagued with diet-related health problems from heart disease to obesity.
Solving the problem is not easy. It’s not enough to just open up a supermarket. As a 2011 study "Fast Food Restaurants and Food Stores" in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows, proximity to supermarkets is "generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake" and "diet outcomes were mixed" in the areas researchers studied. Building a fast food joint, on the other hand, had a healthy boost on the amount of such food eaten by low-income men living within 2 miles.
How to fix this? Fork in the Road is taking a stab at the problem. It sells produce and staple pantry items in low-income areas, but it also goes beyond just presenting people with healthy options--it also helps people overcome their fears about healthy eating by providing advice and meal planning. By providing not just food, but cooking help, the Portland-based startup hopes to be that last mile for healthy food.
Its pilot program--a series of farmers markets in low-income housing--served more than 20,000 people in Multnomah County, Oregon. Now it wants to expand to a fleet of mobile trucks. You can fund its Kickstarter program here.
Seniors and families with children in urban areas--often those with transportation and financial constraints--have been the primary focus. But Fork in the Road feeds anyone who doesn’t regularly eat nutritious foods. It’s also found that people who simply lack the time, cooking knowledge, and meal planning experience to cook nutritious meals for themselves at home find huge value in their services. "We want to be a stepping-stone organization to help people take the next step toward healthy living from a place that is comfortable for them," says cofounder Amelia Pape.
After Fork in the Road purchases its first vehicle this year for its Mobile Markets, Pape says that "the long-term goal is to offer micro-franchises to community members as a means of expansion into new neighborhoods, but without losing the local ties to each community that are so important to us. We also think it would be really cool to give people the opportunity to become entrepreneurs."
We asked Pape a few questions about Fork In the Road. The interview, edited for length, is below.
Co.Exist: What kind of food do you sell?
We offer fresh produce, staple pantry items, and support in helping people compile ingredients to prepare meals at home. We sell items that help provide customers with building blocks for a healthier diet.
[We don’t sell] foods that are overly processed or high in calories without accompanying nutritional content. All of our products must have a positive nutritional value and be a resource to people who want to incorporate more mindful, healthier eating into their daily lives.
Who seems to be your best customers (or most surprising demographic)?
Pape: Our first pilot market site was in a senior housing area. While we were there, an on-site employee approached us and expressed interest in the concept. He didn’t face major physical access or transportation barriers like the residents we were focused on, but felt overwhelmed by the idea of shopping for and cooking meals at home.
He was thrilled to find that we offered meal planning support, and has since become one of our best and most outspoken customers. While we thought that people may find secondary value in this type of support, we were excited to find that it is a primary driver for many of our customers. (You can see an interview with this particular customer on the web here.)
How can you be cost competitive transporting all the food given all the competition from large stores that are very efficient in getting bulk shipment to grocery stores?
We have lower overhead than large, traditional brick-and-mortar establishments. Because we’re mobile and operate out of a relatively small truck, we avoid the traditional expenses like leases and remodels, utilities, and theft and vandalism costs that large stores face. We also have reduced holding costs due to our just-in-time inventory system.
What’s the average price of your food (relative to other places)?
We are very competitive with traditional grocery stores and much more affordable than the corner stores and fringe food outlets where many of our customers previously had to shop. Some people assume that because we’re making it much faster and easier for people to shop, we impose some sort of “convenience tax” as a consequence; this is just simply not the case.
Because of our overhead savings and relationships with wholesalers, we keep our prices right where our customers need them to be. We are also in the process of being able to accept SNAP benefits (food stamps), which will further enhance the affordability of our market to many customers.
What items have been most popular so far?
We’re thrilled that fresh produce is a top seller. Best-selling items differ slightly depending on seasonality and location of our market. This fall, sweet potatoes just flew off the shelves.