Closing the Food Gap in Food-Insecure Communities

This is an excerpt from a longer article recently published in Sight & Life magazine (August 2019). It is co-authored by Refresh Working Group members Danielle Nierenberg, Alicia Powers and Sarah Papazoglakis.

Recent digital innovations in e-commerce, online grocery shopping, and food and meal delivery services are helping to address food and nutrition insecurity by bringing fresh foods into communities that have a dearth of brick-and-mortar grocery stores or else experience other food access issues. 

Obesity is the number one cause of preventable death in the USA, where nearly 40 percent of the population suffers from the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in the USA is the high cost and inconsistent availability of healthy, nutritious foods.

At the same time, more than 15 million American households – about 12 percent of the national population – are food insecure. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “households [that] were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” In a country defined by its abundance and prosperity, the so-called food-insecurity obesity paradox has come to refer to conditions in which access to nutritious food is unreliable, thereby rendering communities more vulnerable to hunger, obesity, and other associated health risks. 

Innovating Solutions

In Opelika, AL, a rural, southern town of about 30,000 residents, Auburn University’s Hunger Solutions Institute teamed up with independent grocer Jimmy Wright of Wright’s Market to solve food-insecurity issues through a unique mobile market called Fresh Mobile. Fresh Mobile serves the Opelika-Auburn area and its surrounding rural areas of Lee County, an area that covers about 600 square miles. Fresh Mobile is testing the effectiveness of combining healthy food incentives, online food stamp redemption and centralized delivery as mechanisms through which to increase access to nutritious foods in rural areas while maintaining a sustainable business model.

The program is one example of how technological applications can support multifaceted programs that target both individual behavior change and market conditions by helping to increase demand for unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods.

Government-supported healthy-eating incentive programs are also among the most impactful technology-based, national programs to increase consumption of nutrient-dense foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. The USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is helping to close the food gap by providing financial assistance for families living below the poverty line so that they can purchase fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals, meats and dairy products. Within SNAP, the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive program goes a step further by using SNAP data to provide incentives for healthy purchases. Specifically, the Schumacher program incentivizes the purchase of fruits and vegetables by doubling the amount of SNAP benefits, based on the value of the eligible fruits and vegetables that are bought.

Digitizing Benefits Programs for Greater Impact

Online SNAP redemption is an additional technology-based innovation currently being piloted. The online SNAP redemption pilot program enables program participants to use e-commerce tools to shop for groceries online. While online grocery shopping is not new for most, impoverished communities have not had the same level of access to online options as affluent communities. The online SNAP redemption pilot program is, for some participants, the first time they have ever ordered products online, especially food products. Many low-income individuals are unbanked or underbanked and, therefore, use cash for all purchases, which prohibits online ordering SNAP users are given a debit card that gives them access to the funds that the government program provides for food purchases.

Having the ability to order online with the SNAP debit card helps SNAP participants enter the digital economy in a way they have not been able to before. Not only does the online SNAP redemption pilot program have the potential to improve access to foods, the program is also helping grocery stores take advantage of digital technologies for shopping and delivery services, thereby helping to increase access to nutritious foods in rural, food-insecure communities.

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date.