A stand for vegetables: Get Fresh Detroit
By Nicole Casal Moore
Detroit is hungry for fresh fruits and vegetables. For more than half of its residents, a fast food restaurant or corner store is at least two times closer than a true grocery store, according to a 2007 report by independent food consultant Mari Gallagher.
In this place where more than 20 percent of households don't have cars, the extra distance is far and its effects far-reaching. Fast food restaurants and convenience stores usually don't sell fresh produce, so large tracts of the city are what Gallagher calls "food deserts" - areas where balanced meals are hard to come by. People who live in these communities are more likely to die from diet-related causes, even when you take income, race and education into account, she has found.
"Because humans eat so regularly, we turn to the places that are closest," Gallagher said. "We say we'll do better tomorrow, but today we're going to the gas station to get hot dogs."
Not if Noam Kimelman and Zach Markin can help it. The two University of Michigan students moved to Detroit this past summer to launch a business that puts fresh fruits and vegetables in the convenience stores and liquor stores where many residents regularly buy their food. Get Fresh Detroit was born in a social entrepreneurship class at the College of Engineering.
"Vegetables," said Kimelman, "can save the world one liquor store at a time."
He smiled. Okay, maybe not the world. Maybe not the city. But maybe, here and there, they can save some street corners and some meals. And those can add up.
"Putting vegetables into convenience stores isn't going to change the state of Detroit," Kimelman said, "but we think it can make a difference."
Across from the bulk Twinkies and between the liquor and lotto at the Corktowne Market corner store is their first permanent sales point--a vegetable stand.
Green peppers, carrots and russet potatoes are shrink-wrapped together into Stew Starter Kits with a recipe on the back. The packaging gives the food a longer shelf life and makes planning easier for the customer.
Baskets of shiny red apples and sweet oranges offer healthy options as easy to snack on as a bag of chips.
"The nice thing about the apples and oranges is you can eat them right away, so we're hoping that will draw people in," said Markin, a junior in chemical engineering.
The inspiration for this business began in small ways for each student in high school. That's when Markin got interested in entrepreneurship, and Kimelman developed a passion for healthy food.
Kimelman, a master's student in public health and urban planning, lost more than 30 pounds in his teens.
"Once I got thinner, I started to notice how much the food I ate affected my mood, my attention span and how I felt in general," he said.In the summer of 2008 he founded the Ypsilanti Health Initiative, a non-profit that teaches lower-income residents about healthy eating and provides half-price groceries.
When Markin was a junior in high school in Wisconsin, he interned at a company that made lighting systems for venues like performing arts centers and churches. He got to know the founder, and he saw the powerful effects the company had on its community, beginning with 500 good jobs.
"I was struck by the positive change that one person had created, even though the actual product his business produced had very little to do with it. The company could have manufactured anything," Markin said. "The experience changed how I thought of businesses. I saw that they could create real meaningful change in the world in a way that sustains itself."
Markin knew Kimelman through the young people's service club Rotoract, and together they took Moses Lee and Nick Tobier's Social Venture Creation class in winter 2010. They teamed up in class with four other students in engineering, business and law.
"We started with the problem of food access in Detroit," Markin said. "We thought: How can we use the existing infrastructure where people are already purchasing food?"
Most of them had been to Detroit fewer than five times in their lives, Kimelman said. So they took weekend trips, talked to people in the food industry such as store clerks and truck drivers, and met with community leaders. "We realized that packaging and distribution were the problems. There was supply, with Eastern Market, the largest wholesaler in the nation. There's the demand, but there's not really a good system for delivery," Markin said.
Now there's his Volkswagon and Kimelman's donated Buick.
On a June Monday morning, Markin wrapped the last of 40 Stew Starter Kits in the kitchen of Southwest Solutions, a nonprofit that donated them space.
"Apparently there are all sorts of Saran Wraps," he said. "You have to find one that gets the CO2 and oxygen levels right and retains the moisture. It's quite an interesting industry."
It's this casing that makes the vegetables valuable to the food pantry that ordered 30 kits. Loose vegetables aren't viable for many retailers or food distribution charities because they're fragile and don't have a long-enough shelf life. Proper packaging keeps them fresher and sturdier.
Kimelman says it feels odd to make a profit from a food charity, but several pastors he spoke with have assured him that Get Fresh Detroit is filling a big need.
The other ten Stew Starter Kits made their way around the city with the students. A few got handed out at a focus group. The rest went on sale, along with apples and oranges, in the lobby of the University Meadows Senior Center. That's part of the students' strategy to let people know about their product. They set up a table and a poster. Residents hung around to chat.
Lucille Rogers bought fruit. The previous time the stand was in her lobby, she bought a whole kit. She cut up the vegetables and froze them to eat little by little on salads.
"I'm glad they come out here," Rogers said. "My kids and grandkids will bring me vegetables, but we don't really have a place in the area to get them."
It was late afternoon when the team restocked at Corktowne with what didn't sell at the senior center. Ten days since they first put up the stand, they had sold about one $3.49 pack every other day.
"It's moving little by little, the potatoes and onions and fruits," said Tony James, Corktowne Market manager.
The students expected things to start slowly. After all, people don't go into liquor stores these days looking for carrots. If they can sell 10 or 15 packs a week, they say they can sustain their business and the transformation it is working to achieve.
Sustainable change is an additional bottom line for social entrepreneurship endeavors like this one, and the students believe in the approach.
"While I worship the work of non-profits and community organizations, I'm beginning to believe that real change can only occur by engaging the capitalistic fabric that runs through our markets, our communities and our country," Kimelman said.
He and Markin still face the trials and errors of regular start-ups. They say they're growing comfortable with the feeling of failure, which is a good thing. They're learning to learn from it.
The first generation stew bundle came with onions and celery. But the powerful onions gave the pack a sort of one-dimensional flavor profile. (Now they sell the onions on the side. They're hardy enough.) The celery needed refrigeration, which store managers often can't spare. In some cases, they learned, beer companies buy the coolers for the stores and expect them to be filled with their beverages.
It took them a while to figure out the best way to approach store managers. The students started out walking up to bulletproof cashier's booths with nothing to buy and no product to show. The cashiers were suspicious. So they tried buying a chunk of cheese or a can of beans while making their pitch. That went a little better. Finally, they offered free samples.
"They liked that a lot," Kimelman said.
Corktowne manager James was the first to place an order.
"People have told me, 'It's good you're selling this,'" James said. "Maybe it might make it."
Kimelman thinks it's done something important already.
"Having a full shelf of fresh produce changes the whole feel of a store," he said. "Instead of it being a place where people go to feed their vices, it becomes a place they go to feed their families."
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