Self-driving cars meet SNAP: National Academies forum examines role of tech and social innovation in the food system

Stephanie Miceli | Aug. 14, 2019

Rev. Heber Brown III wants people to erase the term “food desert” from their vocabulary.

“What I would rather say is ‘food apartheid’,” said the pastor of Baltimore’s historically black Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. Food deserts refer to areas devoid of nutritious, affordable food, whereas food apartheid is a more encompassing term that looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith, and income. He believes it affects how grocery stores pick locations, what types of foods are available to people, and the power dynamics in fields, kitchens, and every point of the food supply chain.

While dollar stores and farmers markets are a mainstay near his congregation — neither provide nutritionally nor financially sound options for the community.

“It’s a different frustration when you see what you need, but you still can’t get it,” Brown said at a recent workshop on food system innovations held by the National Academies’ Food Forum. So he transformed the front yard of a church into a 1,500-square-foot garden, which has since evolved into a network of 14 Baltimore churches that offer discounted produce while supporting black farmers.

Emerging technologies in the food system can make a big difference for communities like Brown’s. Speakers discussed how self-driving vehicles and drones, blockchain, and sustainable packaging all have a role in improving food access, safety, and affordability.

“Combining social innovation with technological innovation will be the future of the food system,” said Nevin Cohen, associate professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health and research director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute. 

Testing self-driving grocery delivery

Brent Heard, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, shared one example of combining technology with social services. Using self-driving vehicles or drones to deliver nutritious meals to food stamp recipients could eliminate their need to travel to the grocery store, he noted. If deployed at scale, “there are big environmental gains to be had from self-driving vehicles,” he said, since many are designed to be energy efficient.

Reimagining food packaging

Packaging is often overlooked when it comes to food safety, said Claire Sand of Packaging Technology and Research LLC, which aims to reduce food waste through more sustainable packaging. She said packages that contain antimicrobials or oxygen absorbers can keep microbial activity at bay, extending shelf life and improving safety. Cohen, the CUNY public health professor, also noted that home-delivered meal kits are a big source of packaging waste, “because sometimes the ice packs they contain can be more expensive than the meal itself.” He spoke about the emergence of meal kits for low-income families, some which offer meals that are ready to eat, reducing the need for costly packaging.

Improving food traceability with blockchain

When a food item — for example, salsa — is recalled, it’s difficult to find out which item is the cause of contamination. That’s where blockchain comes in, said Dawn Jutla of Nova Scotia-based startup Peer Ledger, which aims to use blockchain in the food supply chain. The use of blockchain, a digital and encrypted set of transactions, may lead to better traceability during a product recall, she said.

The bigger picture

Anu Ramaswami, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, reminded attendees that food intersects with a broad range of infrastructures, including energy, water, waste management, transportation, and green/public spaces. While emerging technologies show promise in transforming the food system, they need to be deployed responsibly and in ways that respect the values and preferences of communities.

The workshop featured other speakers from academia and startups who examined additional emerging innovations in the food system, including the use of big data analytics, alternate food production methods (including “meatless meat”), and the rise of “social supermarkets,” which offer discounted food and social services, such as nutrition and financial literacy classes.

Videos from the workshop are now available here.

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