Innovating an End to Food Deserts

Our Thoughts on John Foraker’s Call-to-Action

Image Credit: Jurgen Mantzke

Earlier this week, Annie’s CEO John Faraker, issued a call-to-action, entreating Jeff Bezos, among others, to eliminate food deserts in the United States by 2027. His challenge is a reminder of the unfortunate irony of the modern American food system: that in an era of unprecedented abundance, where off-season blueberries traveling some five thousand miles seem to be available at every local grocer, 23 million U.S. residents live without access to fresh, healthy, and nutritious food.

Food deserts, though themselves isolated, are not an isolated problem. The seclusion of these often socio-economically deprived communities is a byproduct of a national food system that has, for decades, prioritized convenience and affordability over nutrition and sustainability.

This choice has had profound consequences. The infrastructure of our food system now ballasts processed food and monoculture over fresh produce, diversified local agriculture, and positive health outcomes. Even the emergence of Whole Foods and related movements have not changed the fundamental reality: convenience always comes at the expense of health and sustainability, and we continue to choose the former.

Why not challenge that preconception? Certainly Amazon, food delivery services, and start-ups all have important roles to play to end food deserts in the U.S. Each can expand access, advocate for education, and channel moralistic authority critical to improving health outcomes — the ultimate goal. But what if, with technological innovation, we could bypass obstructive infrastructure? What if we could bridge the chasm between health and ease, appropriating our instinct for facility as a positive force for sustainability?

By way of example, consider the landline telephone. Into the 21st century, the high cost of wiring inhibited mass implementation in sub Saharan Africa and rural Asia. However, the cellphone and wireless technology circumvented prohibitive infrastructure requirements, expanding access like never before. To guarantee access and democratize nutrition, our food system requires a paradigm shift of similar magnitude. Several companies are already harnessing technology to lead this transformation.

Currently operating out of the Bay Area, Imperfect Produce has created a marketplace for aesthetically inferior fruits and vegetables otherwise rejected by retailers. This secondary market supports farmers with a previously unrealized revenue source, and offers customers direct delivery of nutritious produce at a lower price point. Similarly, Spoiler Alert connects food businesses with surplus inventory to non-profits and discount buyers. Both concepts unite convenience and health by reinventing traditional distribution systems.

In the developing world, limited access to electricity and refrigeration is a major barrier to food preservation. Using an evaporative cooling technology, Evaptainers has manufactured an electricity-free refrigeration system that can extend the lifespan of fresh produce without modern infrastructure requirements.

Hazel Technologies, Inc. has focused on extending the shelf-life of fresh fruit. Its BerryBrite technology applies essential oils to inhibit the growth of bacteria causing degradation and spoilage. In addition to reducing food waste, shelf-life extension provides additional time for produce shipment, expanding distribution possibilities to previously unreachable communities.

Apeel Sciences targets both pre-harvest and post-harvest food loss. Its proprietary, plant-based coatings act as invisible protection, replacing traditional pesticides used in the field and delaying produce decay after-harvest. The technology is an exciting opportunity to extend shelf-life and yield without sacrificing environmental health.

Our company, Natural Cuts, hopes to contribute to this conversation. We utilize a proprietary food processing technology developed at Cornell University to extend the shelf-life of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables without the use of preservatives, additives, or chemicals. The patented technique allows produce to last up to 60 days without freezing or refrigeration. Eliminating cold storage from the processing and distribution chain is a game changer, lowering energy consumption, decreasing food waste, and increasing access of good food through unexplored shipping and retail avenues.

In his new book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, Michael Rulman explains how the grocery store represents the duality of human achievement. On the one hand, the stocked shelves and bounteous displays proclaim the ultimate victory of man over nature: a mastery of food production, international transport, and global commerce. On the other, nutrition labels buried on the back of flamboyant boxes and attractive packaging reveal our tragic misuse of this power in incentivizing synthetic processing over fresh produce.

The recent history of food in the United States has been a battle between cheap convenience and expensive healthier alternatives. The gluten-free and organic movements show the public’s power to affect change in the food system in the face of a $17 billion food marketing behemoth. But science and technology ought to help us reframe the fundamental conflict. It should not be daring to say that ease and affordability don’t contradict nutrition and sustainability. It’s time for innovation to make that manifest.

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