UNC's Good Bowls Program Peddles Cheap, Nutritious Meals in Convenience Stores, Co-ops, and Food Deserts | Food Feature | Indy Week

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UNC's Good Bowls Program Peddles Cheap, Nutritious Meals in Convenience Stores, Co-ops, and Food Deserts

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Call it trickle-down misery. When funding is tight, the people further down the economic ladder are the hardest hit. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina has the fifth-highest number of people living with food insecurity.

In the Triangle, the statistics are sobering. The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina says that, from 2016–2017, about 14 percent of Wake County residents, 14 percent of Orange County residents, and 18 percent of Durham County residents were food insecure.

One contributor to food insecurity is the food desert: an area where there's a lack of access to affordable, healthy food because of insufficient grocery stores, farmers markets, and other outlets selling nutritious food. Often, residents in food deserts rely on convenience stores, which are not known for fresh produce or nutritious fare.

To help bring affordable, healthy food to food deserts in Durham and rural Warren County, Alice Ammerman, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Department of Nutrition and the director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, has developed a creative solution called Good Bowls, funded initially by a $75,000 grant from the Felix Harvey Foundation.

Good Bowls is a meal in a bowl, made with fresh ingredients and based on the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, legumes, lean proteins, and fish. To extend its shelf life, Ammerman came up with the idea to freeze the bowls and sell them at convenience stores, bringing an affordable, healthy alternative to food deserts.

Weaver Street Market, which states a commitment to fighting hunger, was a logical partner for helping develop and test recipes and produce the first batch of bowls; it also donated food and labor. The bowls feature locally sourced, seasonal produce from small- to mid-size farms, which produce crops such as sweet potatoes, peppers, and greens, keeping ingredients and flavors varied. It also gives farmers an outlet to sell excess or imperfect produce.

Weaver Street's Hillsborough-based production facility, Food House, has crafted three different options for Good Bowls' inaugural run, including chicken and rice in a coconut curry sauce, sausage and veggies with cheese grits, and a chicken-burrito bowl. Eventually, the bowls will be made in commercial and community kitchens in various counties across the state, which has the potential to create food-related jobs in the local economy.

The first run of Good Bowls has been delivered to a few stores in Warren County and three Durham convenience stores, including Express Food Mart, Mangum St. Mini Mart, and Los Primos Supermarket, where they retail for $2.99 and can also be purchased with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps).

Good Bowls are also sold at Weaver Street Market and will be available at the Durham Co-op Market this week. Because co-ops strive to serve customers with a broad variety of financial circumstances, Beth Hopping, a board member at the Durham Co-op and co-director of the Food Insight Group, a Durham-based food-systems research organization working with the Good Bowls project, came up with a plan to price the bowls depending on a customer's financial means. At Weaver Street and the Durham Co-op, Good Bowls will retail for $4.99; at the register, customers can choose to either pay two dollars less for the meal ($2.99) or two dollars more ($6.99). This cost-offsetting model will also help supplement the $2.99 price offered at local mini-marts.

Now that the bowls have been distributed to the pilot stores, Ammerman and her team can assess program efficacy. Data is important in determining the future of Good Bowls. To that end, they'll track sales at participating convenience stores, and once the Good Bowls are rolled out to additional stores and counties, they can also track Good Bowls-related revenue generated by partner commercial kitchens and farmers and suppliers.

Scientific data is also key to measuring success and defining next steps. Eventually, Ammerman wants to study the impact that regular consumption of Good Bowls has on the health of consumers in food deserts, since fruit and vegetable intake is associated with disease prevention. In the context of a broader study, this will include in-person interviews and maybe the use a Reflection Spectroscopy, or "Veggie Meter," a noninvasive diagnostic tool that measures fruit-and-vegetable intake, particularly ones that contain a lot of carotenoids, such as leafy greens, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

Ammerman says that Good Bowls will strive to achieve self-sufficiency to eliminate relying on grants, which are uncertain and can result in funding gaps. This will keep the project's mission front and center—providing a consistent, reliable source of healthy, affordable food to the neighborhoods and people who need it most.

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