Think of a food desert, and you might picture a neighborhood where the nearest fresh vegetable is miles away. But the biggest challenge to healthy eating in poor neighborhoods isn’t always access to healthy food, it’s whether people can afford to buy it. One solution: A grocery store that gathers nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted and then sells it at insanely low prices.
Daily Table, a nonprofit grocery that opened in Boston’s Dorchester in June, was the brainchild of Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s. After learning about food insecurity in the U.S.–and the fact that, at the same time, around 40% of the food we grow is thrown out–Rauch decided to use his industry chops to tackle both problems.
“The challenge we have in America is that the food system is designed from the farm on up to create calories that are cheap and nutrients that are expensive,” he says. “People on the lowest economic rung get squeezed the hardest.”
That means, for the first time in human history, someone who can barely afford dinner might also be obese. “The answer here isn’t a full stomach,” says Rauch. “The answer has to be a healthy meal. It turns out getting a healthy meal is a lot trickier because of the costs associated with fruits and vegetables, dairy, protein. These are expensive ingredients.”
Rauch partners with vendors to get excess food–like fruit that might be just slightly too ripe to make it through the standard supermarket system. Some of the ingredients end up on the shelves at Daily Table, while chefs turn others into ready-to-eat meals like prepared salads and soups, or entrees that can cost less than $2.
Half of the food the store sells is prepared, a result of customers’ lack of time. “Eighty percent of Americans don’t know what they’re having for dinner at 4pm in the afternoon,” he says. “As you move down the economic rung it gets worse, not better. People are working a couple of jobs, taking public transportation, and what they told us was, if you really want to help, you’ll have ready-to-eat meals for us.”
The same type of surplus food that is donated (or sold at low prices) to Daily Table might also be donated to food banks. Rauch says that his store isn’t competing with food banks, but offering a new option for people who don’t want handouts.
“Most of the 49 million Americans that are food insecure are working, they have jobs,” he says. “They’re the working poor. They’re buying food now. They’ve told us in no uncertain terms we don’t want a handout. We don’t want charity. They want to buy product. It helps provide dignity. They don’t want to be stigmatized.”
The store looks like an ordinary upscale market, with wooden crates full of produce and the kitchen on display behind a plate glass window. It’s open to anyone, though the nonprofit requires free memberships to track the neighborhoods it serves.
Unsurprisingly, stocking a full grocery store with unpredictable donations is not easy. “Traditional grocery stores have a couple of wholesalers they call up or order from,” Rauch says. “The product arrives, they know what they’re going to get, when they’re going to get it, they know exactly how much they’re going to get, and they know what the price of it is.”
It took longer than expected to open the store, and each day poses a challenge for the chefs who cook food for the prepared food section. “Our chef has to basically be like on the Food Network, one of these Top Chef sort of contests–okay, here it comes, make us something good out of that,” he says.
There’s also the bigger challenge of trying to change people’s long-term food habits. “When you tackle a social ill, you almost by definition have stepped into a systemic problem, where single approaches almost never work,” Rauch says. “In this case, we’re basically trying to change the way people eat.”
Despite the challenges, the store has been a success so far, with 5,000 members and hundreds of customers every day. Rauch plans to expand to new locations.
He’s convinced that food insecurity is something that everyone should be thinking about. “This is a problem that, as Americans, sometimes you don’t think it relates to you,” he says. “But when 49 million Americans aren’t able to eat properly, and because of it their health suffers–and they get obesity, heart disease, diabetes, in their teenage and young adult years–this is going to be a health care cost tsunami that hits all of us.”