Empowering communities to address the challenge of food deserts through neighborhood distribution of nutritious meal kits
Pitch us on your solution
Food deserts are a crisis in urban areas:
The inaccessibility of nutritious food - especially in low income communities - is a driving factor in the global epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other chronic disease, whether one looks at Boston, London, or Cape Town.
Imagine if we could create the ecosystem of neighborhood food distribution in communities with inadequate access to healthy groceries without fixed cost investment or the disruption of major construction.
EatWell partners with community organizations to sell affordable, nutritious meal kits from pop-up retail locations at community centers, senior communities, and schools.
Through streamlined sourcing and eliminating the need for fixed brick and mortar investments, EatWell sells ready-to-cook meals for 20% less than the cost of grocery stores. Embedded coaching teaches important culinary skills, leading to increased family nutrition and food security.
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What is the problem you are solving?
Approaches to the problem of urban food deserts that do not address the intersecting problems of access, cost, and knowledge offer an incomplete solution to this growing, global problem.
13.2 million residents of U.S. cities live in food deserts - more than one half mile from a grocery store. In London, 80% of the population of the inner core reside more than 1 km from shopping opportunities. Food insecurity in urban Cape Town is 81%, due to rapid and unplanned urbanization and fragmented infrastructure. The problem of food distribution in these burgeoning global cities is pressing, and requires a solution that can scale with the demographic changes that are taking place.
Inefficient distribution systems lead to more costly food for populations least able to afford it. In Boston’s food deserts, residents pay 30% more for basic ingredients at the nearest store. Thereby, lack of price competition exacerbates inequalities of income and access.
Finally, the knowledge to prepare wholesome meals on a budget is a significant barrier to achieving healthier outcomes. Nearly twice the number of Boston food desert residents rank cooking and meal planning to be greater barriers to healthy eating than accessing affordable ingredients.
Who are you serving?
In Boston, EatWell’s target customers are residents of food deserts making between 100%-200% of the poverty line. These are frequently single-parent households, predominantly female-headed who are employed in either full-time or multiple part-time positions.
In the U.S., the populations most likely to be affected by food deserts are:
- Low income
- Recent Immigrants
This aligns with the demographic circumstances prevalent in global and emerging cities.
In Boston, EatWell has conducted over 100 surveys in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health, to understand the challenges to residents of urban food deserts and the interventions that might support their needs and aspirations. Among these residents, nutrition was second only to price in their purchase behavior. Nearly all stated they relied on fast food or unhealthy prepared meals more frequently than they desire.
Seniors and residents with disabilities living in food deserts are a particularly at-risk population. Declining mobility exacerbates issues of transportation and access. Demographic projections indicate that senior populations will be among the fastest growing in global cities over the coming decades. Solutions that support independence and well-being through improved nutritional access will be important in managing these trends.
What is your solution?
EatWell sells affordable, nutritious, meal kits that gives families in food deserts an easy way to make dinner. Each kit comes with all the ingredients and a picture-based recipe that teaches healthy cooking skills, takes only 30 minutes to make, and cooks all in one pot. This saves time and addresses the challenge of how to make a healthy meal.
Lean design is baked into EatWell’s model, leveraging high-value logistics partners to maximize affordability without sacrificing quality or taste.
Using national wholesalers, we access high-quality bulk ingredients at a 60% lower price than the local grocery store.
We’re a member of Commonwealth Kitchen, a culinary incubator in Dorchester, where we access commercially certified prep space at an hourly rate. Here we package ingredients down to the oil and spices, so our customers have exactly what they need, and exactly the right amount! There are more than 700 similar commissary kitchens across the United States to scale the model nationally.
Instead of costly delivery, our kits are sold from pop-up kiosks at partnering community orgs like YMCAs, health centers and housing communities. This removes fixed costs like rent and utilities, while making EatWell an accessible part of a consumer’s daily routine: just grab a box on the commute home. Because we staff our kiosks and kitchen with local employees, we create jobs in the communities we serve!
This lean design allows us to easily best competitors:
Affordable- Family dinner costs between $20 and $30, but our 5 person meal kits cost only $15, and they’re food stamp-eligible. This is 25% cheaper than shopping at the local grocery.
Accessible- Our meal kits are sold from partner orgs in food deserts, cutting the distance to fresh food in half.
Nutritious- Adriana, EatWell’s 2 star Michelin chef, designs healthy recipes that kids want to eat, with 50% less sodium and sugar than fast food and 1/3 as much fat, ensuring happy bellies and healthy bodies!
Our vision is that EatWell becomes the platform partner to support community efforts to solve the problem of food deserts. A map app indicates where EatWell meals are available. Community employees become neighborhood owners of food businesses. Community organization partners expand their services and profit share.
Bypassing the disruption and cost of developing a grocery store, EatWell supports local control of a new food distribution ecosystem, where all share in the values and health benefits.
Which dimensions of the challenge does your solution most closely address?
Where is your solution team headquartered?Boston, MA, USA
Select one of the below:
New business model or process
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
EatWell leverages neighborhood partnerships and lean processes to support local food distribution:
The high cost last-mile delivery is a barrier that most meal kit companies cannot overcome. The marketing, subscription model and high-income target customer are consequences of the costs associated with this delivery approach. In contrast, EatWell's community partnership strategy leverages their space and access to food-insecure families, to offer them improved food choices at lower prices than grocery stores.
As a result EatWell can also offer low-waste packaging compared to other meal kit companies. Our meals can be sold at distribution sites without need of refrigeration and with low spoilage.
As the logistic partner, EatWell eliminates the risks for adding food distribution to the bundle of services community organizations provide their communities. Thereby, EatWell supports the value and mission of these organizations. In addition, EatWell becomes a channel for local farmers to penetrate growing urban markets without existing distribution infrastructures.
Lastly, EatWell leverages our customers’ aspiration for a family meal experience to lead to robust behavior change. A study designed with Harvard researchers indicates that 86% of EatWell customers eat more fruits and vegetables when not relying on a meal kit and 92% are less likely to eat fast food.
In addressing the problem of food deserts, grocery stores require large fixed-investments and neighborhood disruption during their construction. The cost of home delivery meal kits is out of reach for most community members. In comparison, EatWell’s approach supports a break- even customer volume that is even lower than a food truck’s.
Describe the core technology that your solution utilizes.
Our core technology is the logistics supply chain that enables community-collaboration to address the challenge of food deserts.
In the neighborhoods we wish to impact, many organizations such as schools, senior centers, and YMCAs exist with the mission to offer services to their communities. For these partners, EatWell de-risks the opportunity to offer a new service: the sale of easy-to-prepare and nutritious food.
EatWell concentrates on business activities that its partners are not optimized to accomplish:
- Regulation & food safety
- Wholesale purchasing & production
Embedded coaching for behavior change
Recipes are co-designed by members of the community, while EatWell’s chefs and nutritionists infuse healthy cooking techniques. Partnering organizations also bridge the trust gap arising from an outside organization entering those neighborhoods. Local leaders monitor the impact and support nimble response to specific community challenges.
At the wholesale purchasing level, local farmers and suppliers will see fair prices and easier access to urban neighborhoods that previously lacked food distribution infrastructure.
As a social benefit corporation, EatWell returns profits from food production through revenue-sharing and investment into its partners and the wider community.
Thereby, the solution to food deserts becomes the “community’s solution” rather than an intervention opposed from above.
At low risk and without fixed cost investment, EatWell offers a scalable solution with an embedded coaching intervention: to encourage wholesome food and healthier outcomes in urban food deserts.
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
EatWell supports an embedded coaching approach with easy to follow picture based directions. Initial data collected from our customers suggests robust behavior change is possible utilizing this approach:
Even when not using an EatWell meal kit, 100 families reported eating more and a wider diversity of fruits and vegetables after a 4 week intervention with our meal kits. To our knowledge, this is the first study of home-based culinary coaching using meal kits with publication targeted for later this summer.
The aspiration, common across all cultures and income levels, to provide a wholesome family meal to loved ones is the key to EatWell's social impact. Our team believes that this will lead to shifts in diet among our customers, decreasing future incidence of chronic disease and building agency for those family members. This is a first step in rebuilding a community ecosystem of healthful food options in food desert neighborhoods and a community led response to the problems of food insecurity.
Select the key characteristics of the population your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Our EatWell team is transitioning this summer from behavior change research and product validation of our 14 meal kit recipes to market testing.
This summer EatWell is piloting at 11 senior living centers, 4 community farmers markets, and 2 youth community organizations. We are eager to see whether our approach will have the mission impact that we have planned and labored towards.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Within the next year, our goals are to have significant impact against 4 major food desert communities in the Boston urban area. Initial pilot sales are concentrated around Mattapan and Cobden Square.
In the fall, we are positioning EatWell to explore two additional partnership channels:
1. Colleges (of which Boston has many) are significant sites of food insecurity. A recent NYT article reported that approximately 31% of students are food insecure. A higher number still lack the skills for healthy meal prep and cooking.
2. Obesity is 31% more prevalent in food desert communities. EatWell is exploring pilot studies to demonstrate its cost-effectiveness as an upstream community-level intervention for Healthcare and government policy partners.
In five years, EatWell intends to grow to ten of the top 100 cities.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
EatWell relies on social networks within food desert communities to respond to the problem of access and health.
These neighborhoods are of lower income and historically under-served. A high proportion of households are headed by immigrants to the U.S. or are first generation.
More than sales or growth, the key outcome
necessary to sustain a solution for these neighborhoods is the trust and
agency of community members. Without such trust, EatWell will be unable to leverage neighborhood solutions to empower the social impact we envision for the organization.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
The first efforts of our team in our target communities are to approach leaders of community organizations with our mission and to engage neighbors through farmer's markets and other events. We survey community tastes and favorite recipes and assess what residents aspire to regarding food and family.
As it grows, our EatWell team intends that the social connections that underlying our team's first steps will not be lost.
Select an option below:
Hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit
If you selected Other for the organization question, please explain here.
EatWell operates as a Social Benefit Corporation. It partners with community organizations under a public-private partnership model, to expand service delivery into food deserts and food insecure communities. Profits are shared and re-invested into its community partner organizations to improve food access and health.
How many people work on your solution team?
2 Full-time Co-Founders
1 Part-time Co-Founder
3 Part-time Marketing Staff
2 Part-time Community Advisers
1 Part-time Research Director
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
EatWell team members are actively engaged in partnership with the communities in which we operate. The impact we hope to achieve together will only occur with trust and understanding of a joint mission and common aspirations.
Professionally, the EatWell co-founding team includes a 2-star Michelin chef published in the Food as Medicine space and two team-members with a combined 15 years of healthcare experience (who are earnestly adapting to the challenge of encouraging health instead of reacting to illness).
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
EatWell operates from MassChallenge and Commonwealth Kitchens, which are both incubation/acceleration programs in Boston, Massachusetts.
We are actively engaged with Boston's ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development) and the Mattapan Community Development Corporation.
We are finalizing pilot interventions with the Mattapan Senior Living Center, Hebrew Senior Life and the Boys & Girls Club of Charlestown.
What is your business model?
EatWell is a food consumer packaged goods (CPG) distributor. Community organizations such as YMCAs and senior centers partner with us as channel distributors.
Thereby, EatWell operates B2B2C sales, with an innovative channel strategy.
Our channel partners host pop-up retail locations, with no fixed investment or overhead. This eliminates fixed costs and de-risks entry into new communities and markets.
Because EatWell does not deliver “the last mile”, only to neighborhood distribution locations servicing 20 customers or more, its logistics costs are also very low compared to other meal kit services.
In Boston, we sell 5-serving meal kits for $15. In the communities we serve, this represents a cost savings of 25% compared to the closest available grocery store.
EatWell partners with wholesale suppliers to secure ingredients for an average of $7.35.
At scale (300 meal kits per day), labor for production and delivery is $1.36 per meal kit.
Kitchen and van rental is an additional $0.48.
This represents gross margins of $5.81 or 40%, which is in line with the CPG industry.
All breakeven statistics are calculated for a metropolitan area serviced by a single commercial kitchen, modeled off current Boston operations.
Gross breakeven occurs at 450 meal kits per week.
At 820 meal kits per week, EatWell operations can support 2 regional supervisors and marketing outreach.
Breakeven volumes compare favorably with a food truck business. In comparison, EatWell can service a larger volume of customers and does not need to purchase a truck.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
In U.S. cities, EatWell’s favorable unit economics permit breakeven on food sales alone. For example, in Boston’s inner core 100 thousand residents are food insecure. Families in Boston at the 25th percentile of income spend $4,900 per year on food before nutritional benefits. EatWell meets the budgetary and value-requirements for purchase by a large proportion of families in these communities.
Please see the attached picture for additional details of our total addressable market.
EatWell is SNAP (food stamp eligible) and permits community organizations to enroll their members at various levels of public support.
The organization is piloting the service in partnership with healthcare systems interested in cost-effective upstream interventions that prevent the development of chronic disease.
In the global context, EatWell can accept in-kind donations of food or philanthropy to further leverage its impact. There are additional opportunities to develop a model similar to Tom’s shoes, where one purchase in an affluent area subsidizes services to an underserved community. In comparison however, EatWell can commit to purchase from local farm suppliers for the production of meal kits.
Why are you applying to Solve?
The success of EatWell depends on partnerships and the social networks in the communities in which we operate. Our team is convinced that one-off nutritional interventions will never solve the problem of food deserts and adverse health outcomes. Instead, we envision EatWell as a partner in a community response to the problem, harnessing the commonalities and cultural values of food and family to address unmet needs in the neighborhoods in which we operate.
At the Solve, the challenges that define the community are the intractable problems; the issues that have defied traditional solutions; the ones that have stumped the best individual minds. We, as individuals, have sometimes ourselves failed in previous attempts.
In confronting these obstacles, our sole advantage is the community. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
At Solve, each team has an individual vision, but the community shares a common vision as well. We wish our ideas to take on new forms, that we couldn't on our own have imagined. We hope to be tempered by the ideas of others whom we meet and work with, and to empower those working other paths towards common goals of health, sustainability and happiness.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
EatWell is exploring partnership opportunities with Health Systems and clinical researchers to identify the health impacts of introducing meal kits as a service in food insecure communities. Because EatWell leverages the existing food budget of residents of food desert communities while supporting healthful behavior change, we are hopeful that this intervention additionally proves cost-effective in the healthcare context in decreasing the risk of obesity and chronic disease among at-risk populations.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
Community Organizations such as YMCA's, Boys & Girls Clubs, Community Development Corporations and Senior & Community Centers are aligned along with the mission of offering services to residents in need in their communities.
We would like to access organizations such as MIT's poverty lab to better design and model community impacts achievable through EatWell's model.
Healthcare organization partners to support our mission of upstream, community-driven interventions that prevent disease.
If you would like to apply for the Innovating Together for Healthy Cities Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution.
Food deserts represent an intractable problem that defies "simple" solutions imposed by above, even by the most well-meaning individuals. In contrast, EatWell is designed to harness unique social capital of individual leaders and organizations to create community-led responses to the problem.
In our first pilot community of Mattapan in south Boston, EatWell team members spent over a year surveying residents to identify what interventions would truly be helpful. This outreach was the source of our insight that food access and cost are only a portion of the problem for these communities. Interventions that increase the knowledge of residents to prepare wholesome meals on a budget is missing from most approaches. The embedded coaching model utilizing meal kits is a result of this research. If we have the budget to further validate the promise of this approach, our EatWell team is certain it will prove valuable in diverse contexts in nutrition and food security interventions.
The Innovating Together for Healthy Cities Prize would enable our team to demonstrate what the EatWell intervention may accomplish at scale. We sincerely appreciate MIT Solve's consideration for our proposal.