From Homegrown to Smartphone
March 20, 2012 | by Colleen Newvine
Susan Evans (’72, Rackham ’81) and Peter Clarke (LSA faculty 1972-1981) worked for two decades to get food banks and community pantries to stock fresh vegetables and fruits.
Clarke, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), and Evans, a research scientist at Annenberg and Keck at USC, used their research and relationships with food banks to determine the roadblocks to stocking fresh produce and to devise solutions.
Initially, they found many food banks serving low-income people weren’t equipped to handle perishables, lacking refrigeration, for example. Food banks concentrated, instead, on shelf-stable foods that donors made easily available. And food banks assumed that low-income recipients were uninterested in fresh produce. Clarke and Evans’ research showed differently: Clients did want to feed their families nutritious meals, but they were limited by the available processed ingredients that food banks and their pantries offered.
Today, Evans’ and Clarke’s work has resulted in 150 food banks distributing more than 500 million pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits each year. Their focus has now turned to what happens after people take the food home.
Clients often have no idea what they will receive at their food pantry—a planning challenge for even the best cooks. On top of that, the average American doesn’t possess a wealth of cooking skills, leaning heavily on convenience foods and restaurants. Food pantry clients often don’t know what to do with the fresh produce they get.
“Access is one thing,” Evans says. “Now we have to put the key in the door and help people cook.”
© Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Evans and Clarke recently received funding to develop a smartphone version of a tool they developed for tablet computers, called Quick! Help for Meals. The program asks about each household cook’s individual needs for vegetable-based recipes and food tips (whether you’re a senior citizen living alone or a parent with kids to feed, for example) and about preferences (whether you favor foods from certain ethnic backgrounds or enjoy strong flavors like garlic). In minutes, Quick! Help provides customized and color-illustrated booklets of recipes and tips, printed at each recipient’s community pantry.
Evans and Clarke tested their customized booklets against more general cookbooks and against no resource at all, and data showed the customized books led people to eat more fresh produce. Evans notes that in many households they studied, if people didn’t know what else to do with a vegetable, they’d boil it or steam it. Learning that vegetables can be more flavorful if oven-roasted, for example, can transform veggies from dull to tasty fare.
“It’s easier to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables if you don’t get bored with them,” Evans says.
Early versions of Quick! Help involved food bank staffers asking clients for their information needs, using tablet computers. But, Evans said, allowing people to self-profile on their mobile phones to get access to recipes could expand the universe of users, including users at short-staffed food banks and at farmers’ markets.
And that, ultimately, can have benefits beyond the dinner table.
“We are a country of very rushed eaters, not leisurely eaters,” Evans says. “Shopping together and eating together are parts of our culture. Food connects family units, even communities.”