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Around the Table: A Meal Sharing Platform as a Creative Disruption to Improve Community Coordination, Food Literacy, and Eating Habits

With a virtual meal-sharing “community bulletin” as a technological platform, this vision strives to impact food-behaviors.

Photo of Peggy McElgunn
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

EAT Foundation, Inc. -- Nonprofit Charitable Organization in VA – 501(c)(3) classified under the US Internal Revenue Code.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.eatogether.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Richmond, Virginia

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Richmond is 162.1 km2 with a population of 227,032 in the city limits and 1,263,617 in the surrounding making it the 45th largest MSA.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

OUR EXPERIENCE

Team members live in Richmond, VA, and have a history of community-focused work here and nationally. We have seen the city’s growth in the past decade, in terms of population, investments, and access to economic opportunities.

DEMONSTRATED NEED

Richmond’s status as a “food city” has grown, but the gulf between neighborhoods of plenty and paucity still expands. Many community initiatives are focused on reducing inequality, but stakeholders express difficulty reaching the populations their efforts seek to benefit. Gentrification exacerbates inequitable distribution of food, services, and resources. More of Richmond’s citizens live in “food deserts” than the national average: roughly 10%. Despite difficulties, Richmond presents a unique opportunity as a “test kitchen” for replicable efforts given its history, size, location, and cultural relevance.

RICHMOND’S RELEVANCE

Richmond is an “historic” city with a past of infringement on minority rights and living conditions. These problems are compounded by de-facto segregation that characterizes many neighborhoods. This history provides impetus for policy makers to address decades-long injustices observed in the city through the food system. Richmond hosts international events, including a folk festival, which is now a cultural stalwart event (16 years running). These gatherings demonstrate Richmond’s capacity to organize around mission-driven initiatives. Richmond is surrounded by agricultural areas, while also close to the national capital in D.C. This offers local farms/producers a way to involve themselves in initiatives, while simultaneously improving access to policy makers. Any vision for Richmond must account for cultural and socio-economic variability due to its diverse nature, making the vision more broadly applicable/flexible. Richmond’s moderate size allows systems-level initiatives to be “tweaked” without great risk, or need for exorbitant resources.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The capital of Virginia, Richmond is a city with historic roots complicated by modern understandings. Located on the banks of the James River, it has been a city of national interest since before the Civil War for its strategic value and proximity to other major cities Its central location is enhanced by the transportation options to get in and out, as well. From its founding in 1737 to today, myriad forces have shaped the cultures, habits, and demographics of Richmond and its inhabitants.

In 2020, Richmond’s population is about 48% black, 40% white, and 6.5% Hispanic or Latino, though these are not the only ethnicities represented in the population. The population is relatively young with over 54% 44 or younger (32% between 25-44). Many of Richmond’s neighborhoods are experiencing rapid gentrification, as housing districts are being met with an influx of development, and thereby pushing out many families, some of which have been in Richmond for generations. De-facto segregation characterizes the city, as it is segmented into neighborhoods that roughly track along both racial and socio-economic lines. Richmond’s history of slavery complicates racial and socio-economic divides in the city, as many citizens work to reckon with and overcome past wrongdoings.

Richmond has seen a growth in the number of nonprofit organizations in recent years. Many of these have missions focused on improving food-access/equity, and work diligently to bring the food system’s problems to light in the greater community and address these problems accordingly. There is growing energy surrounding these initiatives, and many of Richmond’s citizens seek out opportunities to be actively engaged in these community efforts.

Within many neighborhoods where food-access is inadequate in terms of retailers and local producers, diets are likewise lacking in terms of nutritional value. Fast food chains and convenience stores are the main food source in these areas, and a lack of adequate public and personal transportation compounds the effects of these limited options.

In the greater community including areas just outside of Richmond, there is demonstrated interest in “exploratory” dining, experiences surrounding international cuisine, and uncovering the cultural elements of food. These more narrative and cultural lenses of food are sometimes used by nonprofits in their fundraisers and community outreach events. Food festivals occur throughout the year highlighting the many food cultures that have made a home in Richmond. Staples of southern cooking, such as ham, collard greens, corn bread, etc. are frequently incorporated both into restaurants and home cooking. Richmond itself is an urban environment, but local farms and agricultural areas surround it.

In terms of climate, Richmond is generally temperate, although in the summer humidity and heat spikes with about 41 days of the year above 32 degrees Celsius. Rainfall fluctuates throughout the year, with about 249 days/year being sunny.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

1263617

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Though far from the only challenge, access to nutritious foods is a major challenge currently facing the Richmond area—according to the USDA, 60,545 Richmond residents lived in a food desert in 2015. For a Richmond resident with reliable personal transportation, it is still a notable inconvenience that there are only five large or mid-size grocery stores in city limits—three of which are located in the same two block radius on the far west end of the city, and two of those cater to wealthier clientele. There is one large grocery store towards the middle of the city in the Virginia Commonwealth University area, and one smaller and more expensive grocery store towards the east end of the downtown area, which is the closest grocery store to some of the lowest income areas in the city, but still miles away. 

In addition, transportation confounds the problem of food insecurity as many lack access to reliable personal transportation options both for work and for traveling to grocery stores. A recently implemented fast transit bus line, the GRTC Pulse, may make some impact on the ability of lower income individuals to access food—for example, an individual on the east end of the city can now take a bus to the large grocery store towards the middle of the city in 20 minutes rather than 40, but this may still be a significant barrier, and lack of personal transportation will likely continue to be a problem.

Not only is there a lack of food access, but the grocery stores stocking nutritious food that do exist in the city often cater to wealthier clientele. Part of this access issue is the trend of gentrification of Richmond’s neighborhoods, a trend expected to continue into the future, with everything from the rent increases of new developments in housing districts, to the literal division of communities with highways and thoroughfares playing a role. This represents “development” without full consideration of the human costs of progress. Rising rents and socioeconomic trends in certain areas make the economic viability of opening lower cost grocery stores to address access issues a particular challenge. 

In the future, however, our vision expects access issues to be a thing of the past. Approaching the challenge from the behavioral side—the demand side, rather than the supply side—we would expect to increase the economic viability of the sale of nutritious foods in all neighborhoods, facilitate disruption, and take advantage of natural economic forces to reduce the challenge of access.

Still - gentrification, development, the expansion of urban sprawl, and transportation may continue to be challenges. While we hope to make a large impact on culture, and for nutrition to have an socio-economic impact in the long term, by 2050 we might expect socio-economic challenges that may limit individuals’ time and resources to persist, regardless of individuals’ willingness to eat healthily.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

A systemic view of food access pipelines, market principles, community resource availability, and the like, while critically important, is not adequate to address the problems facing our food system. An approach accounting for more nuanced human systems of social interaction, habit, tradition, and the underlying beliefs that drive decisions is needed if we are fully transform the food system.

By providing both platform and impetus for the proliferation of culinary and nutritional skills into the community, our vision stands to impact the very foundation of any food system: individual behavior and choice.

Through a connected network of family homes turned public dining options, we aspire to employ principles of social learning theory to teach and reinforce more healthful, community-focused, environmentally sound food behaviors in Richmond. 

Out of this primary intervention--the shared meal:

1. Nutritional and culinary skills will be disseminated naturally, and diets will be improved organically through a greater variety of healthy food options

2. With behavior changes, there will be increased demand for fresh food and local ingredients, making previously neglected neighborhoods a viable option for food retailers

3. Community cohesion will be improved through increased social interaction and relationships between inhabitants

4. Financial stability for individuals will be improved through the opportunity to generate income

5. Local farms and producers will generate a direct-to-consumer market, thereby improving their sustainability

Fundamentally, we believe that the dining table is an underutilized tool for the improvement of the food system, and that in the act of sharing a meal, there is profound potential to shape both individual behaviors and the key economic drivers of our common food experience.

Through this grassroots approach, we are able to impact decisions made by individuals in their own unique circumstances each day. We believe that a vision prioritizing empowerment, personal relationships to food, shared experiences, and the social variables surrounding “the meal,” will not only be more effective, but also easier to implement and sustain. As Richmond’s inhabitants’ perspectives shift to better understand the communicative and narrative aspects of the food experience, the choices they make will be more directly connected to their own sense of identity. This shift in perspective will drive food choices that are conditioned upon an improved understanding of the effects our food has on the community, environment, and body.

Among the myriad benefits accrued through this perspective is improved collaboration, which can be leveraged to produce more effective advocacy efforts in the name of more equitably distributed resources, support, regulation, and community development.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The best way to get to know someone, to form connections across social, cultural, and personal boundaries, is sharing a meal. The dining table--whether in the kitchen of someone’s home, in a school cafeteria, or on a public park bench--is the ultimate “level playing field.” Leveraging the power and influence of this ubiquitous and necessary event, “the meal,” we can affect Richmond’s complex food system, and impact the fluctuating hybrid culture that inscrutably weaves itself through the lives of every inhabitant of our home and city.

With a greater number of shared meals taking place in the homes of Richmond’s citizens, a more concrete sense of mutual effort, community, and shared circumstances is created. Differences between individuals are tempered by the common interest of food. As kitchen tables become a competitive option for affordable meals in areas currently dominated by fast food outlets and few healthful food resources, improved nutrition is an expected outcome. Using fresh, local, and affordable ingredients, neighbors will improve the health and quality of life for themselves and their neighbors.

Additionally, this neighborhood-centric view of dining opens the door to supplementary income for individuals, as they provide outsiders the opportunity to find a meal in their homes, thus creating a shared economy.

The adage “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is only elevated when that hand is of the neighborhood rather than the individual. The typically transactional nature of “the meal” will be supplanted by a sense of mutual growth, effort, and endeavor. The forces that currently divide our community, such as gentrification, will be correctly seen as a threat to the security of the community as a whole. As neighbors’ presence in the community is connected through their sense of choice and ability to eat, the “holistic community” is no longer an abstract concept: community cohesion becomes a matter of self-preservation.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is to create a self-sustaining, grassroots disruption to inequitable food systems, with all elements stemming from, and being encapsulated by, the acts of individuals and families cooking and sharing meals in the community. Acknowledging that diet and socio-economic factors are complexly intertwined, our vision addresses inequity in the food system in partnership with the Richmond, VA families and community members who live in areas lacking access to nutritious, diverse food options (i.e. food deserts, and other areas where grocers, farmers markets, fresh food sources are sparse or absent). 

Our plan further intends to be largely self-directed and planned by participating families and community members, as their food choices and underlying perspectives are developed, habituated, and aligned over time. 

The primary mechanism of our vision is a meal-sharing virtual community bulletin or electronic application. This platform would allow community members to advertise meals they are willing to share with the public, be that in their own home, or as “take-away” alternatives to the fast food establishments that currently dominate communities neglected by grocers and other food retailers. These “community meals” would be ideally priced to compete with the proliferation of affordable, but nutritionally less valuable options found at fast food restaurants and in secondary food retailers (i.e. convenience stores).

In tandem with this platform would be the opportunity for participating families to request and receive culinary and nutritional education through partnerships with local culinary professionals. As a greater percentage of community members participate in this program, the “first adopters” would ultimately become the next generation of culinary and nutritional “tutors/partners,” thereby growing the capacity for, and diversity of the program from within the community itself. Essentially, this platform would be the realization of the sharing economy for food driven by and for the very users of this economy and beneficiaries of this economy.

Stemming from this system of community-driven food access are a number of benefits, both to the food system and the community as a whole.


ACCESS

As community members open up their homes and kitchens to their neighbors as a viable dining option, problems of access compounded by a lack of viable transportation and fresh food outlets will be drastically reduced. Individuals will be able to go down the block to a neighbor’s house for a meal, rather than depending upon unreliable public transportation to get to a far-away grocery store with a limited selection, or being forced to choose between the few fast food options that dapple their community. These neighbor-to-neighbor dining options would not be limited to the individuals who live within the community, so outside visitors and citizens in the surrounding area will be able to sustain the home cooking program through their patronage as well. With increased participation comes increased demand for ingredients, as well. We believe this will help mitigate food deserts as suppliers will be more interested and willing to provide support and options for access.


DIET

Even less-healthy home cooking provides greater nutritional value than many fast food options, and the predominantly processed foods available at convenience stores in communities neglected by fresh food retailers. This program would have an immediate and sustained impact on the diets of community members simply by the incorporation of fresh ingredients. Further, as the program and community meal-sharing platform persist, culinary skills and nutritional behaviors would be disseminated throughout the community in a natural way, through the social learning that takes place in shared environments, especially when groups are gathered around the table. Through a growing economy possible with shared meals, behavior supporting nutritional choices would be reinforced.


ENVIRONMENT AND WASTE

The quality of food is directly connected to the quality of ingredients. As food-fluency/literacy continues to evolve in the community, affordability, quality, and availability of ingredients will be prioritized. This will drive greater interest in supporting local farmers/producers, as the products they make available are not only better suited to culinary pursuits, but better for the environment. Additionally, as community members are able to make available “extra” food through the meal-sharing platform, there will be a reduction in waste as food is distributed more evenly throughout the community.


CULTURAL COHESION & PUBLIC POLICY

Driving investment in food decision-making behaviors through providing opportunity for greater mastery of food-related skills, natural forums will develop “around the table.” These forums will become incubators for community solutions surrounding food insecurity. It is logical to expect that with a greater abundance of community meals, will come a depth of relationships throughout the community, and an increased capacity to discuss, pursue, and organize around initiatives of mutual interest. This will create an environment where advocacy efforts on behalf of the community (e.g. lobbying food retailers, organizing community improvement projects, etc.) are more fluidly pursued and accomplished. 


FINANCIAL STABILITY

Our platform will allow individuals to “crowdsource” nutritional meals, more efficiently invest resources in food by reducing food waste, and take advantage of bulk purchasing to reduce the per-unit cost of nutritious food. It will also provide “gig economy” opportunities for individuals to earn supplementary income and develop marketable entrepreneurial and cooking skills. Both of these factors would increase the financial stability of individuals endeavoring to cook healthy meals and of the communities to which these individuals cater.


Ultimately, by 2050, we envision a group of invested community champions, living within areas of Richmond where food access is lagging, leading a movement of interested neighbors and community members in their pursuit of their own self-interest generated by elements related to food. This includes greater food and health fluency/literacy as well as improved culinary skills resulting from a shared economy. The sustainability is possible as the incentives of the platform reinforce natural behaviors to socialize, develop, and, of course, eat healthily as it stimulates creativity and connectedness. 

These food-literacy pursuits will encompass sourcing food (i.e. growing or purchasing it), preparing food (i.e. cooking skills, techniques, and individuation), and importantly, sharing food experiences/making food available to others in an approachable and acceptable way (i.e. the social context of food experiences). 

As community champions continue to mentor their neighbors, a new pool of community champions will be created. The social, meal-sharing context of the cooking and sourcing skills developed is not a “result” of the food skills, but rather the impetus squarely at its center. 

By addressing all forms of food-insecurity through the lens of behaviors (knowledge, skills, and decisions), the stigma surrounding access and poverty/socio-economic inequity is reframed through the “empowerment” and individuation of community members’ own aspirations and pursuits as surrounds the use, creative endeavors, and the social gratification stemming out of individual food-use. 

As such, the understanding that anyone’s food-insecurity is equally founded in behavior/habit/choice as it is founded in access/socio-economic status/community, a more “equal playing ground” will supplant the inherently paternalistic tone and attitudes that can surround certain philanthropic and altruistic endeavors. This “equal footing” regarding attempts to impact the community’s food-security creates a societal understanding/culture where all members of the community are committed to eradicating food insecurity through training, teaching, supporting and participating in solutions that are organic and support local farming and agriculture and sourcing. 

A measure that would demonstrate the system worked effectively would be access to food made by community members which could then be shared with those that currently do not have access to healthy options or heretofore seek unhealthy, cheaper options (i.e. fast food). Another measure would be the creation and sustained use of a platform by which community members could supplement their income through offering food, experiences, and opportunities for learning to the general public, thereby improving their economic reality using similar principles to those used by other “sharing economy” endeavors (i.e. Air BnB, Uber, etc.). 

The use of this platform, and the sustenance of these opportunities would represent a cultural shift generally as regards the community’s understanding of how food might be used as a tool both for personal enrichment, and also for social/communal enjoyment.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • information forwarded to us by a government employee recommended we consider application

3 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Alana Libow
Team

Hi Peggy McElgunn - Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize!

How might you integrate input from the families and community into your sharing of Richmond's challenges and how might their input help inspire a call to action for your vision?

As a reminder, you have at your hands our toolkit (http://bit.ly/2X4ZxQk), which can help you in integrating community-centered design, future casting and more into your Vision.

We look forward to seeing your updates!

Spam
Photo of Peggy McElgunn
Team

Hello Alana - Great question!
A primary component of our vision is that the actual "intervention" (creating a meal sharing platform, along with the necessary resources to teach cooking/nutritional skills), requires a self-directed approach from the communities most impacted by food-inequity.

So, we largely expect that this will be an iterative process, and through multiple iterations that the initial inputs we've gathered from the community (through surveys/interviews mostly), will be honed and focused over time to address the elements of complex problems most relevant to communities on an individualized basis. (For example, if lack of food-access is the primary concern in the community, our meal sharing platform can leverage home-cooked-food use data in advocacy efforts with producers/retailers to demonstrate demand in the community. If the diet of community members comes to the surface as a primary concern of those using the meal sharing platform, then we can bring in nutritional/culinary educators into the community, to reinforce and support positive food skills in community members' homes.)

We are really trying to emphasize as flexible an approach to our vision's application as possible, especially considering the fact that the food system of 2050 is very likely to look different from the food system of 2020. We want to be prepared to adjust in any direction that is identified by our growing cadre of "participants" and involved community members.

Spam
Photo of Alana Libow
Team

Hi Peggy McElgunn - When we propose "How might you" ques, we are providing a nudge/prompt for you to integrate your answer to that into the response. So anything that you would like the final judges to review, should in submission vs this comment area.

As you take your final steps, we also encourage you to review this checklist: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1o8WGMus6-V8GywWdlNwmCpk7I1fMVzcQ/view

Reminder submissions close tomorrow at 5pm EST.