Designing for Dinner: Human Centered Design in Baltimore’s Food Environment

Authors: Devika Menon, Mark Corser, and Matthew Barr

When Mark Corser, moved to Baltimore in 2015, he quickly realized that fresh, affordable produce was either difficult to access or unavailable in his neighborhood. Determined to learn more about how to find a solution to this problem commonly known as “food deserts,” his research led him to starting the nonprofit known as Bent Carrot, and participating in The Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab. As part of the SIL experience, Mark was provided with design support by Devika Menon and Matt Barr, now graduates of MICA’s MA in Social Design program.

Social design uses a problem solving framework known as human-centered design (HCD) to address pressing social problems. Grounded in empathy and experimentation, this approach puts the people, their experiences, behaviors, and needs at the center of every decision. It helps design with people, resulting in engaging, equitable, and more successful outcomes. The social design framework can be particularly useful for entrepreneurs seeking to make a positive impact in their communities.

Early on in Mark’s entrepreneurial journey, the problem seemed clear. While healthy food wasn’t available in some neighborhoods, there was a surplus of the same food in others. All that was needed was a way to get these food resources from one place to another. Like many others, Mark devised a plan to connect unsold produce with community members living in food deserts. But he quickly discovered that this kind of service already existed across the city.

Going back to the drawing board, Matt and Devika recommended Mark try to better understand the experiences and behaviors of Baltimoreans as they relate to food access. They encouraged Mark to have both one-on-one interviews and group conversations with a variety of local residents because it was vital to listen to a diverse group of people with extensive knowledge of the issue, as well as those who hadn’t given the topic a lot of thought. Mark decided to host four community dinners, and actively listen during group discussions about the realities of Baltimore’s food deserts. By focusing on open ended questions, Mark was inundated with new information that he was then able to sort into themes, and discover two critical insights.

First, limited food access is not a new problem to Baltimore City. Food deserts are a consequence of historically discriminatory patterns of urban development, resulting in the uneven distribution of food resources (such as supermarkets). Farmers markets, nonprofits, and even private businesses have taken the initiative to develop programs that bridge the gap and connect residents of food deserts with fresh, affordable produce. They have gained the support of the City government and now make free, or heavily discounted, produce available across the city.

The team also discovered that even if households have access to fresh foods, many don’t have the kitchen tools to prepare it. Existing cooking and nutrition community programs supply new information and skills, but not the equipment to take those skills home. Mark wondered, “How can we expect people to prepare and consume fresh, healthy foods if they are insufficiently equipped to do so in the first place?”

Essentially, physical access to food isn’t enough.

Using this key insight, Mark and Bent Carrot launched the organization’s first product — the Kitchen Kit, a set of five tools most often used in the kitchen: a knife, cutting board, spatula, tongs, and saucepan. The Kitchen Kit comes in a canvas grocery bag (for bringing all those veggies back from the market!) and is distributed to households that participate in existing cooking and nutrition workshops across the city. Bent Carrot plans to survey participants to discover if, equipped with the right tools (in addition to physical access to food and education), more people in food desert areas eat fresh and healthy food.

For Bent Carrot, The Kitchen Kit is the practical implementation of the social design process because social designers focus their attention on gathering first person input, and avoid designing from their own perspectives. In essence, they understand that those closest to the problems are often closest to the solutions.

After working with the Social Innovation Lab, Matt and Devika feel Social Design is best applied by entrepreneurs interested in a specific industry, topic, or problem area, but have yet to specify their product, service or approach. They saw how the design process provides entrepreneurs with the chance to identify and capitalize on gaps that speak to the most true, honest, or critical need, as opposed to the more obvious. However, for entrepreneurs that are at different stages of their journey, human-centered design can still provide value, but it is crucial to understand what part of the process is the best fit. For example, some entrepreneurs have a more direct lived experience of the issue, and have already done a deep dive of research that led them to deciding their current approach. For them, perhaps a focus on rapid prototyping to test out their ideas is more appropriate.

Ultimately, collaborations like the one between Mark, the Social Innovation Lab, and MICA’s Social Design program will be successful so long as they are willing to ask, listen and incorporate local community member’s needs into their designs.