Empowering Community Influencers

Last week, the Food Oasis team hit the road to learn more about community influencers in food deserts. From our research so far, we think that these individuals are the key to positive change; by giving them tools to amplify their influence, we can help build demand for healthy food options in places where it doesn’t exist today. Still, the term “community influencers” encompasses many different types of people, and we need to know how to most effectively focus our efforts.

What different ways are there to be a community influencer? What types of influencers should we target to address our goal of grassroots empowerment? What are their goals and challenges?

We set out to get some answers from two people who know a lot about community influence in food desert neighborhoods: Stephanie in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, and Chris in Washington, DC. We met Stephanie and Chris early on in the course of the project, and both pointed us toward holistic thinking and community empowerment as key takeaways. Now we wanted them to help us better understand our target audience. We brought with us an early draft of the evangelist’s toolkit, with paper prototypes of web tools, print materials, and physical artifacts, to help us elicit rich, concrete feedback.

Stephanie Advocates healthy eating in Homewood, the food desert neighborhood where she lives. Connects with the community in her capacities as a leader of food initiatives at a faith-based nonprofit, a researcher and teacher, and a great cook. Chris Founded a nonprofit that runs farmers markets in underserved neighborhoods to provide fresh produce, generate employment, and connect residents to community health resources.

Circling back with Stephanie and Chris helped us draw a better picture of the spectrum of community influencers. Below we share two examples of potential toolkit users. They fall at either end of the spectrum of sophistication. Identifying the strengths and challenges of each group and how different their needs are helped us narrow our target audience. In order to live up to our principle of empowering residents of food deserts, we believe that the most effective approach is to target individuals (like our fictional YMCA volunteer “Sue”) who are deeply embedded in the everyday lives of their neighborhoods.

Big, non-profit organizations are one form of influencers, and at the other end are the volunteers, like Sue, who might not have the same resources or savvy, but has grassroots cred within her community.


Adapting From Community to Community

After everything we did in 2012, we stepped back to think about what to do next. So much of what we did enlightened us to this idea that we can’t just solve one part of a very complicated problem. This was no longer about making a usable, desirable application to increase access, but rather how a to support a system like that by building demand. And that’s a very hard question to answer. We feel pretty confident in saying that the answer is going to change from community to community.

While that may seem obvious, that doesn’t mean each community has entirely unique needs, problems or desires. There is a lot of overlap. There are people in these communities working very hard to enact change, to teach healthy eating, and to increase access. All of that is very hard.

So we’re going learning from those people, who we’ve encountered over the last year and others that we’re just getting to meet now. We have ideas that we’ve uncovered that we think will help, but we need their feedback, their criticism and their ideas. What would work in their community? How would they implement it? Can we package that and use it somewhere else? How do we get these tools into the right hands?

These are the questions we’re asking right now, working with some great people that are dedicating massive effort to bettering their communities. We want to help amplify those efforts, both in their locales and in other places that can learn from them.

Learning in Homewood

Homewood is a neighborhood on the east end of the City of Pittsburgh. It has a population of roughly 6,000 and total area just under a square mile. It is predominantly African American (~98%), and is subdivided into 3 neighborhoods: Homewood North, Homewood South, and Homewood West. Each part has it’s own unique challenges. North has a high rate of children and a very large hill that public transit no longer goes up. West and South have much larger senior populations with limited mobility, and West is also affected by the terrain and limited public transportation.

In planning a pilot test in Homewood, we worked with the Bible Study Church group and their leaders, two of whom are also professors of social work at the University of Pittsburgh. The more we got to know the community and assessed how to improve access through our Food Oasis system, we were continually faced with issues that were so closely tied to access that it became clear that isolating and addressing just one issue was difficult, if not misguided.

Instead of running a test based on a prototype of the Food Oasis system, we decided to dive deep into the community to gain a better understanding of the problems facing consumers here, and also to see how they could frame their own problems.

Homewood Resident Research Session

This turned our work on its head in a sense, as we had been coming to a business or community with an idea, and seeing if it fit into their world. Now we were reversing that process, and trying to see what came out of a community’s problems and challenges.

MAYA ran two research & innovation sessions, one with Homewood residents to let them frame their own problems, and one with business owners and community leaders to ideate around possible solutions to these problems.

Homewood Business Session

The main takeaway was something that challenged one of our main assumptions going into this project. We thought we could build an application for people who want healthier food options, but have low access to them. The more we learned about the problems facing neighborhoods like this, we realized that the challenge is not only that, but creating demand for healthier options. There is an opportunity for a much bigger, longer lasting impact if there can be progress made in that regard. Changing priorities of food desert residents, many of whom do not prioritize healthy eating, in support of a system or application that can provide better access is one heck of a challenge. And that’s where we’ll go next.


Running a Pilot in Bedford Heights

Continuing our partnership with City Fresh, MAYA developed a pilot test to run at one of their locations. We worked with City Fresh to select the Bedford Heights neighborhood, as it represents a typical food desert area—low-income residents, low automobile ownership, and over a mile to a grocery store for many residents.

Working at Bedford Heights City Fresh location

City Fresh is a CSA that delivers local farm shares on a weekly schedule. As with most CSAs, the consumers don’t have a choice in what items end up in their weekly share, but with City Fresh they can choose either a single share (small) or family share (large) from the farmers. Our pilot program added a text messaging layer on top of that ordering, along with reminders about pick-up locations and times, and the ability to sign-up via text.

We had overall good feedback from our pilot test, which ran over the month of September. The system scored high in usability, and both customers and workers were excited about the possibility of building it out more fully.

Interviews at Bedford Heights

One hurdle that will be difficult to overcome is something that City Fresh is already wrestling with in Bedford Heights: getting buy in from locals who are unfamiliar with a service or vendor. The people behind this location of City Fresh are members of a church in Bedford Heights, but a church that draws from largely outside of the community. So getting the locals—who really need the service—involved and to trust an unseen product is difficult. Ordering via text message may only exasperate this.

People like to check out their produce before buying. It seems like there are two ways to make customers more comfortable: time and friends. Over time, they can feel comfortable enough with a vendor to order sight unseen. The other way, which we also saw evidence of in Bedford Heights, is to hear from a friend. This social aspect is extremely intriguing, and will definitely be a bigger focus of our work going forward.

Popping-Up in Cleveland

Concept: three or four healthy, ready-to-make meal kits texted to your phone, you respond with what you want, and pick them up at an institution in your neighborhood.

That’s what MAYA tested in Lakewood, Ohio, with the help of City Fresh and LEAF Community. We set up shop at their local community night and recruited people to try out our text interface, along with testing their expectations about what would be delivered with a service like this. We continue to learn how people really make decisions regarding food.

Food Oasis van

This idea was based on limiting choice, rather than increasing choice. While offering only a few possibilities, consumers liked the simplicity of getting healthy options that didn’t make them think too much—which fits their state of mind at the end of a long working day.

Food Oasis tent

One way to frame this problem is this: make something that’s more attractive than a dollar cheeseburger. It’s easy, people like it, and they know it. Can we push something relatively inexpensive? Yes. Can we make something delicious? Sure. Will people want it? That’s the question. Access is part of the equation, but making newly accessible healthy choices attractive will be a possibly bigger part of the solution.

Pushing Against Hypotheses

As we started research on the original Food Oasis idea, we had three basic hypotheses:

  1. Technology: text messaging is a viable, accessible technology for this purpose.
  2. Supply: Suppliers are looking for additional outlet for their supply.
  3. Consumers: There is unmet demand for healthier food in food deserts.

To test these, the team from MAYA set out to push on each of these and see what we find out using our human-centered design process.

Expert Interviews

We’re not food experts, or community experts for that matter. We are pretty good at learning, though, so we went out and sat down with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, food hub managers, farmers, CSA organizers, farmers market managers, social workers, and even a team of RAND researchers doing a 5-year study on Pittsburgh’s food deserts.

Secondary Research

We really dug into the business landscape that’s out there doing anything resembling this type of thing—grocery delivery services, online farm & CSA management systems, etc—to see how those models work, and how a Food Oasis-like system could work within or expand their offerings.

The technology was also something we had to evaluate very closely, as the pace of mobile phone technology is changing so quickly, we needed to make sure that a “low-tech” approach was still appropriate. While smart phone penetration is climbing, text messaging is still a hugely popular communication channel, and the demographic with feature phones is concentrated in food deserts.

Contextual Inquiry

People first, right? So we went to a Farm Stand, which is a project of the local food bank, to talk with some food desert residents about their eating and shopping habits, along with their technology familiarity. Nothing beats feedback on early concepts from real users in context.

Usability Testing

As we imagined how a SMS system might work, we tested those concepts with real people in a lab setting to work out bugs quickly and easily. While we had their attention, we also got feedback on different levels of services that they’d expect via text message.

What did we learn?

After all this, we had some good insight into those initial hypotheses. The technology still seems completely viable, and we can make a usable, enjoyable system. Consumers, while generally intrigued by the idea, are still a bit of a question mark. The supply side seems the toughest, as businesses and suppliers aren’t looking for new outlets as much as we hoped. They are really looking for efficiencies within their existing system—and they are already pretty good at that!

Where It All Began

The Food Oasis project was born out of a Health 2.0 code-a-thon in Washington, DC. A team from MAYA Design in Pittsburgh went down to see what they could do with OpenGov data sets in one day.

A code-a-thon?

MAYA hadn’t done anything like this in the past, and didn’t know what to expect driving down to DC for the day. Todd Park, CTO of HHS (and now the CTO of the USA), kicked off the day with an inspiring talk about the challenges and opportunities in the health care space, and specifically how he was trying to set HHS up to move the needle on the most pressing challenges. With a nod to NOAA, he expressed his desire to enable smart companies to make useful and usable products and services using health data.


This inspired and fired up the team from MAYA, eager to apply our human-centered design approach, and not just dig into data geek stuff. As such, MAYA staked out the room with the most whiteboards and started drawing based on real user challenges. Our goals was to make something that addressed childhood obesity and healthy eating, so we dug into the data with that in mind. The USDA’s Food Environment Atlas highlights the issue of food deserts in America, which are lower-income neighborhoods and communities where residents have limited access to healthy, affordable food.

Healthy eating represents a way to stem the epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This is costing America billions in health care costs and even small changes in behavior could have a huge impact.

The big idea

MAYA set out to create a low-tech solution that would improve access to healthy food in food desert areas. We set the low-tech bar of text messaging as our limitation, as even now, half the country still has a feature phone (a.k.a., not a smart phone that runs apps).

We sketched out a text-based system that could accept SMS orders in a centralized “virtual market” that would aggregate the community’s orders so that suppliers could fulfill many at once. The orders would be delivered to community locations, like churches, schools, the Y, etc. This way, suppliers could reach new customers by delivering large orders to neighborhood locations where they have no outpost.


We also tossed around some ideas for the future, like users tracking achievements, subscribing to playlists from chefs and foodies, and even local entrepreneurs that could accept challenges to help build their catering businesses. But we also had to build this in a few hours! So before we got down to coding, we defined scenarios, story-boarded the work flow, and figured out some SMS syntax. Then we got down to sketching some user interfaces, connecting a little bit of data, and making sure a few text messages would get through. A few hours later, we had a proof-of-concept—and this little film that tells the story of what we envisioned.

So what happened?

In the end, our Food Oasis idea was the winner that day, and that earned us a trip to Health 2.0’s Spring Fling conference in San Diego to present to a national audience.

This was the beginning, and an incomplete one at that. Knowing that we need to put people first, and that this idea is nothing without testing out the details with real people,  we knew we’d have our work cut out for ourselves. And we were excited.