the food desert challenge

Bringing healthy meals to food deserts in South LA.

This was a collaborative project with Michel Eberhardt, Rashed Iqbal, Mindi LaRose, and Kim McCann for the UCLAx course Designing for Impact. Special thanks to Barb Groth and Marc Mertens, who served as our design thinking gurus.


Food deserts are defined as areas without easy, affordable access to fresh food. They are usually measured by how far residents must travel to reach a grocery store (a common metric for urban areas is more than half a mile). People who live in food deserts often end up paying more for items like fresh produce at convenience stores—or they settle for fast food, which is both cheap and convenient.

Our project partners, Everytable (formerly Harvest) and Groceryships, are working to bring relief to low-income food desert communities in South LA. They challenged us to come up with an inspiring, blue-sky, throw-all-the-rules-out idea to help with their mission. Here's what we did.


How do we ensure equal access to food education and the resources needed to sustain healthy and happy families, but in a way that feels authentic to the community?


In order to learn about what local residents think about food access and healthy eating, we headed out into the field—in this case, the neighborhood around the Groceryships community center, just north of USC. We interviewed families in the Groceryships program (which provides nutrition education, emotional support, and funding for healthy groceries) as well as people hanging out in a nearby park. On our way back, we also chatted with the folks at Urban Radish, a eco-conscious grocery store near our home base, the 100 Years studio.

Some of our findings:

Students notice food inequality in schools.

A 15-year-old said his old public school served food that was less healthy than at the charter school he currently attends. He prefers his new school because the food is better—and because the environment is more egalitarian.

The barriers to healthy eating are diverse.

A mother of three talked about how taste is an important factor in getting her kids to eat more healthy food; a homeless woman admitted that she would like to eat more healthy food but lacks access to a kitchen to prepare it.

Healthcare access is tied to healthy eating.

Many people cited their doctor, or a pre-diagnosis for a disease like diabetes, as a primary catalyst for eating better. Those without access to regular healthcare may never receive the diagnosis that could change their lives.


During the ideation stage, we noticed that many of our possible solutions involved some element of portability. The idea we ultimately decided to test—a healthy food vending machine—seemed promising specifically because it could be placed anywhere (for instance, in a school). We also wondered whether it might serve as a way to dispense information in addition to food.

"Uber" for fresh food

Traveling farmers market

Composting cafeteria waste in school garden

Portable kitchen

Partnerships with local bodegas

Healthy eating watch/bracelet

Holding nutrition/cooking classes in schools

Healthy food vending machine


We designed our prototype to address the following questions:

For materials, we used whatever we could find, including a bookshelf, some sketched wireframes, and real-live plants. (Kudos to the 100 Years studio for letting us temporarily dismantle their awards display.)

We set up our prototype out on the sidewalk, refining it continuously in response to participants' reactions. A fairly early addition: using a tape barrier to signal that participants couldn't simply reach out and grab the food before we had a chance to run them through the test. (It worked.) Another on-the-fly tweak was a "Made Fresh Today" sign in response to questions about the food's freshness.


Give people enough information to feel secure and reassured (lead with the good cause, if applicable).

Our testers said they would buy from the vending machine if it were run by a business with a proven track record, or if it was associated with a mission or charity. They suggested offering an option to donate to an organization through the machine, or enacting a "buy one give one" model. Many were also interested in knowing how the food was sourced and prepared.

Make the vending machine unique.

The non-traditional qualities of our vending machine tickled our testers, some of whom said they would not normally buy food from a vending machine unless it was their only option. They noted that this was "not your typical vending machine" and "the plants make it look fresh."

Charge a reasonable price per meal, such as $10.

The $10 price point was most popular among our testers. Some said that a lower price point would cause them to wonder about the quality of the food.


After the project, I got to have an in-depth chat with Barb Groth and Marc Mertens about design thinking. Check it out below: