Many of the neighborhoods in Los Angeles that are being hardest hit by COVID-19 because of overall disparities in health are also food deserts, places where it’s impossible to buy fresh food. While access to groceries has been difficult for many people at points during the pandemic, the problem is especially acute in these deserts.
To help the people living there get access to food during the crisis, an app called Tangelo now makes it possible to place free orders of fruits and vegetables for home delivery. “When healthy food gets delivered to your door, the word ‘food desert’ becomes meaningless,” says Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that collaborated on the development of the app and launched the program in L.A.
Local organizations, including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, help identify the most vulnerable, low-income community members and then invite them to download the app, which gives them each $40 a month to spend on produce deliveries, for a total of six months. (Wholesome Wave is working to raise more funding to provide longer-term support and expand the number of people that can participate.)
The nonprofit had experimented with other new ways to increase access to fruit and vegetables in the past, including produce “prescriptions” that doctors handed out that were redeemable at local stores, and incentives that doubled the value of food stamps when used on fruit and vegetables. They started working with the Tangelo app—a platform that some other nonprofits are also beginning to use in other cities—to go further, recognizing the value of home delivery, especially in areas without as much access to healthy food. Corporate donors, such as Naked, foot the bill for the food; the nonprofit also hopes to have the platform approved for SNAP benefits.
The app launched in L.A. in January but is even more relevant now. “This gives people who are nutrition-insecure the financial resources to buy the food they need to avoid the diet-related diseases that are killing and hospitalizing people at the highest rates with COVID,” Nischan says. People with diabetes, for example, have a higher risk of dying if they become infected with the virus. The pandemic’s economic destruction has also left many more people struggling to afford groceries.
The app gives users a choice of fresh local produce, and also asks for information that can help better inform nutrition programs; if users choose to take a food quiz, for example, they get incentives for more fruits and vegetables and the nonprofits can gather more anonymous data. Tangelo also plans to let users opt to link the app to their health records.
“We’re heavily focused on outcomes,” says Jeremy Cooley, founder and CEO of Tangelo. “To really drive change, organizations need to be able to measure what happens when, for example, you provide a nutrition-insecure population in a state like California with free fruits and vegetables and nutrition education. Or when you provide subsidized, medically-tailored meals to large populations of patients with diabetes or heart disease. Measuring these outcomes at scale is what Tangelo’s technology platform can make a reality for the first time.”