Fill the Food Gap – The Mission of Meals on Wheels in Boulder, CO

Meals on Wheels America (MOWA) delivers affordable, healthy noon meals to seniors in their homes or at MOWA-sponsored group dining locations. In that single instance each day MOWA fills the food gap between the point of preparation and the point of consumption for seniors. And with that meal come the only calories some seniors will have for the entire day.

What if a local food system delivered ALL the calorie needs for each person in that community every day? Kind of a MOWA on steroids! Yet as far-fetched as this proposition might seem, it is the challenge every community faces if its members choose a sustainable path. After all, everyone NEEDS food and to not have it puts survival at risk.

How might a single meal everyday for everyone system work? The Meals on Wheels of Boulder, Colorado offers a glimpse. The MOW of Boulder mission is

…to provide tasty, nutritious meals to residents of our community who need and want our service, regardless of age or income.

That’s quite a statement. Add “affordable” and “familiar” to the description of the meals and the stage is set for meeting the food needs of the community.

The current MOW of Boulder tagline reads, “Building a Future, Nourishing Our Community.” Formerly, it read, “We Deliver Energy”! And that’s exactly what nourishment is—energy in the form of calories for the human body!

Here’s the rub, though. On average, each of us needs 2,000 calories per day. Those calories are delivered via three meals plus a snack. Like all MOWA chapters, MOW of Boulder delivers one meal per day for a sliding-scale fee based on ability to pay. If we take the cost of a meal yielding 600-700 calories times three in order to meet the 2,000 calorie daily requirement, the total cost may well exceed the threshold of $10 per day. That brings us back to the challenge of affordability each community faces if it is to have a self-sustaining local food system.

The key to the solution rests in how well value-added operations throughout a local food system fit and function together. As a result, sustainability depends on the successful integration of local food preparation and distribution, such as what MOW of Boulder provides, with upstream local food processing and food production. When done effectively, the result is a flexible, interdependent food value chain that stretches from the points of consumption to the points of production. Interestingly, MOW of Boulder shows significant progress enrolling value chain partners with the inclusion of several Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares and other fresh produce from local farms and community gardens.

The community of Boulder has a long way to go before its local food system has the capacity to serve all members and be sustainable. But the efforts of MOW – Boulder and its partner organizations has given it a tremendous leg-up in the process. Keep it up, Boulder!

What can YOU do to help YOUR community establish a Meals on Wheels chapter? And if there is a MOW chapter already up and running, what can YOU do to help it extend its scope to fill the food gap wherever it exists in YOUR community?

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumblr by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, August 28, 2010

Which Food System Do You Use to Get Your Calories?

Is there an alternative to the global food system where a person in the U.S. can get 2,000 affordable (no more than $10 / day), accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories? Obviously, the global food system is quite capable of hitting most of those guidelines as evidenced in Tom Barlow’s posting on Aol, “Eat for a Dollar a Day; Thanks, Costco”. Such foodstuffs comply with government regulations and they are acceptable to consumers who cannot afford or find otherwise.

Unfortunately, these same foods contain high levels of saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. When eaten to excess, which is too often the case when the target markets are those demographic groups that rely on them most to meet their basic food needs (see Natasha Singer’s posting in The New York Times, ”Fixing a World That Fosters Fat”), they contribute to serious obesity-related conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But is health reason enough to go for another food system?

The diagram below illustrates the flow of food from points of production that can be almost anywhere in the world, through processing, preparation, and retail, to points of consumption that can be almost anywhere else in the world. Various non-profit, for-profit, governmental, and non-governmental organizations have assigned or assumed responsibilities to inspect food for compliance with safety regulations as it travels throughout the global distribution system on its way to consumers in communities and neighborhoods wherever they are located. The system is highly evolved and marvelously effective given its design specifications. However, it is also highly subsidized through trade agreements, tariffs, duties, taxes, incentives, price controls, and limited accountability for externality costs, which offset costs and keep prices low.

The major issue with total reliance on the global food system is that residents of a community / neighborhood are dependent on others outside their jurisdiction for food. Their lives are literally in the hands of those who do not suffer the abject consequences of failure to deliver. Climate change, natural disasters, unavailability of or exorbitant prices for fuel, political upheaval, and widespread pandemic outbreaks can singularly or in combination set a series of events in motion that threaten food security and safety. It is this risk to survival that makes the establishment of a local food system in every community, neighborhood, and rural area an imperative.

How does a local food system compare to the global food system? The diagram below offers a quick look. First of all, residents of a given local community / neighborhood take significant responsibility for their food supply, hence, the title “People-Centric Food System”. People are the social fabric or operating system by which skilled / licensed practitioners conduct food production, packaging, processing, and preparation so that “accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories” are delivered to community members through myriad retail outlets.

But does such a system provide sufficient calories to sustain residents? That depends on its business model and key metric. The diagram below offers three alternatives:

Food products of special types that target high-end niche markets and command top prices. The consumer subsidizes the local food system by paying a premium for unique, locally sourced products that cannot be easily purchased from global food system retail outlets. The key metric is cost / type.

Food products packaged in units (pounds, quarts, containers, bunches, etc.) generally available from the global food system for a lesser price. However, the locally sourced products are subsidized through grants and gifts (property, equipment, inputs, labor, etc.) awarded to those who produce, process, package, and prepare them so that prices are comparable to global system offerings. The key metric in this instance is cost / unit.

Food products are packaged into meals that, when consumed in a given day, yield 2,000 accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories for no more than $10. Additionally, the businesses involved in producing, processing, packaging, and preparing those calories for eventual consumption are profitable. As a result, the local food system is sustainable, not subsidized. The key metric is cost / calorie.

The first two are prevalent business models for local food enterprises in the U.S. today. They require subsidization through prices, grants, or gifts to remain solvent. However, they do not provide sufficient affordable calories in a given day for each community / neighborhood resident. The third alternative claims to meet all the criteria, but how does it work?

The graphic below begins to answer the question.

First, the clear intentions of the people-centric food system are as follows:

  • No more than $10 is spent by each person in the system for 2,000 calories per day
  • The businesses involved are profitable
  • The system is sustainable.
  • That intent drives the design of the system.

Second, community members transfer the knowledge they need to be successful through multiple forums, systems, processes, and tools made available by the community / neighborhood. They use this know-how to set the rules for local food security and safety, license food businesses, and build the community’s skill base in food system operations, In other words, they establish a strong foundation of competency upon which to take ownership of their food supply and focus on attaining self-sufficiency.

Third, the entry point is delivery of affordable calories where people live their lives. Mobile kitchens and food carts strategically distributed throughout communities and neighborhoods is the most effective way to accomplish this. The startup investment and operating expenses are low, the market penetration is high and offers a wide range of excellent meals from which to gain the needed calories, and the opportunity to catalyze significant interdependence among all manner of businesses throughout the local food system is substantial.

Today, less than 5% of the food (and calories) consumed in the U.S. is locally sourced. The answer to the question posed in the title is decidedly obvious–the global food system is the major source of calories. But the point of the question is to prompt thoughtful consideration as to the consequences, understand that there is a way out of the predicament, step up, step out, and make a difference in your community / neighborhood by participating in its local food system.

Future postings on this blog will go into more detail about how to implement a people-centric food system. Meanwhile, you are welcome to ask questions.

For examples about the evolution of a people-centric food system in Cleveland, take a look at the Growing Good Connections article, “A Local Government’s Transition from an Urban Agriculture Focus to a Comprehensive Food Systems Policy Approach” and postings about food desert mitigation initiatives in Cleveland on NEO Food Web.

More to come…

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumblr by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, August 22, 2010

2000 Calories for $10 / Day

Everyone needs food. The average calorie intake level for adults is 2000 / day. But that may vary given one’s unique health profile. The How Many Calories Should I Eat blog lists several tools one can use to target a specific number of calories that address particular health conditions and personal circumstances. In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services’s Healthy People 2010 Final Review, the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion offer in-depth information about the impact of diet and nutrition on health and wellness. Please check them out.

Food needs to be affordable. The USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion Cost of Food at Home report for June 2010 and a University of Washington study estimate the average American spends $7 / day on food. Depending on one’s economic circumstances, that average may drop as low as $5 / day. All too often the nutritional value of the 2,000 calories drops along with the cost as stated in this March 1, 2010 Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy article, “Cheap food policy contribution to childhood obesity.” Unfortunately, cheaper calories contribute to greater instances of obesity and related health issues.

An informal comparison between a 2,000 calorie typically “Western” menu and its healthier “Mediterranean” counterpart conducted by U.S. News & World Report writer, Katherine Hobson, pegs the average cost at $10 / day for the Western fare. Ms. Hobson alleges it could be done for less with more judicious planning and shopping.

To that point, the My Money Blog author does an interesting riff on the prices of several food items each in 200 calorie increments. He concludes we could eat reasonably well on substantially less than $10 / day.

Lastly, the USDA reimburses schools $2.72 / lunch (2010-11 school year) for those students who meet the National School Lunch Program guidelines. Each fully prepared lunch provides at least one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calories and essential nutrients. That suggests that $10 / day for 2,000 calories delivered in three meals plus a snack is a reasonable estimate.

Can one make a profit as a supplier to school systems? Revolution Foods, a food service provider based in Oakland, CA, says so–at least according to the USA Today article, Healthy, Organic and Cheap Lunches? Order Up.

Given the above argument, 2,000 calories for $10 / day is the upper limit of affordability for the average person. However, at this level these same 2,000 calories must be accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe. If otherwise, the risk is run that the consumer will default to a less healthy option that is easier to come by, less expensive, and tastes better.

Can local food systems routinely deliver 2,000 accessible, available, nutritious, tasty, familiar, quick, convenient, and safe calories for $10 / day to each person within them? A topic for a later posting!

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development on Tumblr by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, August 21, 2010