At a drab community center on Chicago’s West side, there’s a room where families sit around idly. Unemployment is high here, and so is crime: Last month, East Garfield Park was ranked the seventh most violent out of 77 Chicago neighborhoods. The center offers everything from domestic-violence help, to financial assistance, to warmth during the long winter.
It also offers salads, which visitors can purchase from a futuristic-looking vending machine. The salads are made from high-end ingredients like blueberries, kale, fennel, and pineapple. Each one comes out in a plastic mason jar, its elements all glistening in neat layers, the way fossils might look if the Earth had been created by meticulous vegans. They cost $1.
The salad machine is the invention of 28-year-old entrepreneur Luke Saunders, who launched his company, Farmer’s Fridge, a year ago at a nearby warehouse. His goal is to offer workers a fast, healthy lunch option in areas where there’s a dearth of restaurants. Instead of popping into McDonald's out of desperation, they can simply grab salads from their buildings’ lobbies and eat them back at their desks.
Most of Saunders’s machines are installed at private office buildings, food courts, and convenience stores, where the salads cost upwards of $7. Eventually, he wants to drive down the price to the point where anyone can afford them.
The Farmer’s Fridge machine at the East Garfield Community Center is his initial attempt to bring healthy food to a low-income area. The buck is a nominal fee—the salads are actually day-old donations that didn’t sell at the corporate locations. (All of the salads are perfectly good for up to three days.)
More in this series
On a chilly recent morning, he and I wandered over to the building’s employment-assistance office and met the receptionist, Christina Morales, who told us that she loved the salads, and all of her co-workers did, too.
“Would you still love them if they cost more than a dollar?” Saunders asked.
She’d be willing to pay $2 or $3, but no more than that. “If I'm paying $7,” she said, “I'd want some meat, something more filling.”
The security guard, Margaret Harris, told us that there was often a line for the machine, and that people were always asking her when the delivery guy was coming. I asked her how she likes the salads.
“They're pretty good, I've heard,” she said. “I haven't had any because I don't eat salad.”
At this, Saunders leaped back a little.
“Why not?” he asked in a squeaky, incredulous pitch.
“It's just nasty to me; it doesn’t agree with my taste buds,” she said.
“What do you eat?” Saunders asked.
“The usual: burgers, pizza, chicken ...”
We left the center, and Saunders’ gentle demeanor crumbled. “That woman literally will not try lettuce! She doesn't want vegetables. What do you do?” he exclaimed. “Food is so emotional and driven by history. Just plopping a vending machine in front of someone is not enough.”
As an entrepreneur with a new startup, Saunders is confronting any number of challenges. Among them is a question that has stumped many of America’s top food-policy experts for decades: If healthy food were more convenient, would more people eat it?
* * *
Before Saunders decided to feed leafy greens to the masses, he spent two years working at an industrial-lubricants business in New York. After his girlfriend (now wife) moved to Michigan for law school, he joined her in Ann Arbor, where he got a job selling metal finishings. His work took him through various industrial neighborhoods and far-flung food wastelands around the country. Nearly everywhere he went, he was surrounded by Burger Kings and KFCs, and yet, for him: “There was nothing to eat.”
Saunders grew up in New Jersey on the stuff Whole Foods now peddles to rich hipsters. Each day, his stay-at-home mom served up dinners with ingredients like wheat-berries and kale to him and his five siblings. Back then he pined for fruit roll-ups and Kool-Aid, but as an adult, his crunchy upbringing stuck with him. Out in the real world, burgers and iceberg-lettuce salads just didn’t suffice.
On business trips, Saunders would make grocery-store runs and prepare his own meals rather than grab fast food. “I would get in trouble because they'd be like, ‘Your [grocery-store] receipt doesn't say you were in Toledo at noon, so I don’t think we should reimburse you.’ And I was like, ‘But there was nothing to eat there!’”
Through it all, he saved. And saved. “I thought, this is the money that I'm going to use when I get an idea that's good enough to start a business,” he said.
One day, the idea dawned. He was at the gym, and by the exit there was a fridge stocked with pre-made salads. He grabbed one and saw that it had been made with exotic grains, fruit, and different types of lettuce. The memories of his mother’s cooking came flooding back. He emailed the woman whose name was on the salad, Susan Todoroff, and asked if he could work alongside her to learn her secrets.
Later, he began experimenting in his own kitchen, buying $300 worth of groceries at a time and mixing up nuts, grains, and vegetation until the resulting hodgepodge seemed like something people would want to eat. He noted the more promising combinations on a spreadsheet, along with the components’ wholesale prices.
For his salesman job, Saunders had visited a lot of commercial food businesses—big plants where gargantuan apparatuses stamp out granola bars and pretzels. “I thought, what if I inverted this process,” he said, “so I make everything by hand, but use a machine to distribute it?”
Saunders and his wife, Rachel, moved to Chicago, deciding it was the most affordable city near them that still had enough of a food scene to sustain a salad business. Plus, parking delivery trucks was easier there than in New York.
In 2013, Saunders visited a vending machine trade show to get ideas for his salad machines. He didn’t exactly find a Jetson-ian tech paradise.
The design of vending machines hasn’t changed much since the 1980s, even though the objects inside them have become more varied. Redbox machines dispense DVDs, for example. The Sprinkles bakery has several cupcake “ATMs” where passers-by can get their red-velvet fix without talking to a human. A bourgie shopping mall in Los Angeles recently unveiled a caviar vending machine, where a small can of fish eggs sets customers back $500. Abroad, vending progress is even further along: Japan has put everything from bananas to eggs in the robotic mini-shops, and various European countries sell bread, pizza, and meatballs this way.
Still, there weren’t any machines that would work perfectly for Saunders. He had to hire different companies to custom-make all the parts of the Farmer’s Fridges, from the barn-like exterior, made of reclaimed wood, to the software customers use for ordering, to the refrigeration. In accordance with health codes, Saunders’ machines must hum at a consistent 40 degrees.
The plastic, green-lidded jars, meanwhile, are reminiscent of the short-lived McDonald's salad shaker.
“I hate that comparison,” he told me. “The way the jars came about was, it's challenging to make food vendable and look good, and everything I was trying was not good.” One day, Saunders’ younger brother-in-law noticed on Pinterest that people were using mason jars as food containers. “I went out and bought a dozen mason jars,” Saunders said. (For those who dislike eating from a clear cylinder, the salads come with a small cardboard “boat” into which the jar’s contents can be dumped and mixed with the separately packaged dressing.)
His other brother-in-law had initially doubted the salad-vending-machine idea, but after Saunders switched to the jars, he had a change of heart. “At first he had been like, ‘Eh, it’s stupid,’” Saunders said. “Then he was like, ‘The jars change everything.’"
"It's hard to replicate those a-ha things.’”
* * *
On a recent morning, I arrived early at Saunders’ West Chicago warehouse, where he escorted me up to his small, bright kitchen. All 10 of his employees were bustling around, prepping the day’s salads and lining up the filled jars on baking sheets to be distributed to Farmer’s Fridge machines throughout the city later by two drivers. In addition to salads, the machines also sell containers filled with yogurt and snacks like veggies and hummus.
Almost as soon as we walked in the door, Saunders spotted a problem. “Where is Pat?” he asked the company’s chef, a 26-year-old named Wil Kidnew.
“He called in sick,” Kidnew responded.
Saunders sighed worriedly. Was he going to show up tomorrow?
To get the salads ready in time to be delivered to all 13 machines by lunch, the cooks must arrive at work at 5 a.m. It’s a hard time to ask restaurant workers to start, even at $11 an hour, and a few employees had already flaked.
“A big part of this is showing up,” he told me later. “It's hard. You have to go to bed early and wake up early.” (Patrick was genuinely sick, Saunders later discovered, and he has since been very reliable.)
Farmer’s Fridge isn’t profitable yet, and Saunders has been hand-delivering GrubHub orders on weeknights in order to make extra money. For the first nine months of his company’s existence, he worked 100 hours a week. Now it’s down to 60 or 75. Two months ago, he took the weekend off for the first time in a long time.
This month, Farmer’s Fridge is rolling out two more machines. If its efforts pay off, it will eventually expand to dozens of locations all over Chicago, and possibly in other cities after that. One of Saunders’ dreams—along with becoming profitable, giving his employees health insurance, and getting a day off—is to install machines in more low-income neighborhoods, at prices locals can afford. He hopes that, eventually, the dual threats of poor nutrition and obesity can be treated with fresh produce, rather than with pharmaceuticals.
Efforts like Saunders’ won't improve public health single-handedly, and he knows it. But his business does seem like one potential answer to a long-standing concern in the food-policy world: That there’s not enough cheap, healthy food in low-income areas.
Most medical spending is driven by chronic, preventable diseases, such as obesity and heart disease. The situation has become so dire that four prominent nutrition advocates wrote in the Washington Post last weekend calling for a “national food policy” that would “guarantee the right of every American to eat food that is healthy, green, fair, and affordable.”
The problem is, there are as many potential causes of the national obesity epidemic as there are flecks of orange "cheese" powder on a Taco Bell Doritos Locos Taco.
Speaking in Chicago in 2011, Michelle Obama described the “food deserts” that many low-income neighborhoods have become: “If people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid’s lunch,” she said, “they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it.”
But the following year, two different studies suggested that a lack of access to healthy food isn't the true problem. One, out of the Public Policy Institute of California, found that poor neighborhoods have three times as many corner stores as rich neighborhoods and twice as many supermarkets per square mile. Those findings are consistent with a study in Health Affairs, published earlier this year, which found that, when a new grocery store opened in a “food desert” in Philadelphia, locals’ body-mass indices and fruit and vegetable intake didn’t change.
In the other 2012 study, Roland Sturm, an economist with the RAND Corporation, analyzed the heights, weights, addresses, and diets of more than 13,000 California children and found no relationship between what they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food available within a mile and a half of their homes. More recently Sturm authored a paper, which I wrote about for The Atlantic, finding that while people of all incomes now eat about 30 pounds more vegetables and fruit annually than they did in 1970, obesity is worsening because they're eating more of everything else, too. The average adult consumed about 2,100 calories in 1970, but recently that number has risen to more than 2,500.
“Obesity is not about more food, it's about less food,” Sturm told me. “Improving diet quality is separate from obesity, and it's its own goal. But adding more fruit and vegetables won't make people thinner.”
He points out that there are other issues with the way food is bought and sold in the U.S. Neighborhood bodegas mostly sell unhealthy junk food because vegetables are expensive and spoil quickly, while sodas and chips are cheap and keep forever. In most of Europe, by contrast, tiny green grocers have staked out corners all around most towns and supply fresh produce to the populace. In the U.S., Sturm argues, that would never work. In 2013, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods had less variety and fewer healthful food options than those in rich areas.
Meanwhile, a 2013 analysis by the USDA, using Gallup data, found that it’s a lack of money, not a lack of access to grocery stores, that’s primarily driving obesity. Earlier this year, the Farm Bill cut food stamp benefits by $8.7 billion over the next 10 years, shaving about $90 a month off of the incomes of 850,000 households.
What's more, people of all income levels suffer from obesity. A more comprehensive way to address unhealthy eating might be to try to change food preferences—to make people want green beans more than French fries. Kelly Brownell, a psychology and public-policy professor at Duke, says this type of preference shift is difficult, but not impossible. He points out that the number of people drinking milk—particularly whole milk—has plummeted in the past few decades. Per-capita consumption of whole milk has tumbled by 78 percent since 1970—this in spite of aggressive “Got milk?” ad campaigns sponsored by the dairy industry.
“People can switch their taste preferences, but it takes time and a concerted effort by the government,” Brownell told me. The USDA began pushing the skim variety in the fat-wary 1980s. “In the beginning, people thought ‘yuck!’ whenever they had skim milk. Now people find whole milk unpleasant.”
Recent research on the science of “parental flavor learning” suggests that fetuses that are exposed to certain foods while in the womb will go on to like that food later in life. For those whose moms didn’t munch on kohlrabi, however, there’s still hope: It takes eight to 14 attempts, on average, for kids to learn to like a new food, says William J. McCarthy, a health policy professor at the University of California Los Angeles. And unlike Sturm and others, McCarthy argues that fruits and vegetables can be a weight-loss aid. Nutritionists tend to push eating more produce because fruits and vegetables contain more water and fiber than most processed foods. They make the eater feel full on fewer calories.
McCarthy also believes adults can learn to like new foods, or at least be coaxed to try them more often. When poor New Yorkers were given vouchers for free vegetables at a nearby farmer’s market, they spent more money at the markets overall.
One problem, according to McCarthy, is that convenience is crucial when it comes to mealtimes. A 2009 study in the journal Obesity found that convenience was a major motivator in people's decision to buy fast food, and suggested that public education about the unhealthfulness of burgers and fries was not likely to be as effective as simply making nutritious meals easier to obtain.
After all, what overextended adult is willing to give up an hour to carefully roast an acorn squash when a Happy Meal can be had in seconds? “[Low-income parents] are often single parents. They've got a job and a family to take care of,” McCarthy said. “It's not the money, it's the time.”
In this way, at least, perhaps salad vending machines can make a difference.
* * *
In September, Saunders installed a new machine at a Marriott Hotel near the airport. It’s clear that his biggest struggle has been trying to expand without growing the company too quickly. At one point, he had 20 machines going, but he had to close several because the salads weren’t selling and the locations were too far off the drivers’ routes.
His two food-court machines have some of the best sales, but food courts, he points out, “are kind of dying out” along with the shopping malls around them.
When I visited the North Bridge Mall—an upscale shopping center on Michigan Avenue—there was a lunchtime line for Panda Express, as well as for nearly every other eatery. Very few people were waiting for the Farmer’s Fridge. (Though, if everything goes smoothly during a Farmer’s Fridge transaction, a person should not have to wait long.) The machine was big, its wooden facade taking up nearly as much space as an Orange Julius would. Its neon sign and computer interface beckoned with an experimental vibe. I would bet that if there were a machine like this in the lobby of The Atlantic's offices, Saunders wouldn't be able to stock it fast enough. Still, a few people approached it, seemingly intrigued, and then walked on Nordstrom’s.
This should've been Saunders most receptive demographic, but even here, some people seemed skeptical. One middle-aged man who sounded like he was from Great Britain was chowing down on a sandwich from Potbelly. “I’m not a salad fan,” he said when I asked him if he’d consider trying the Fridge. “It’s rabbit food, not something that would fill me up.”
Another woman was eating a salad she’d picked up at a nearby Mediterranean-themed spot. She said a salad from the vending machine didn’t seem like it would be as fresh. When I told her the salads had been made that morning, she said, “I never would have guessed that.”
Lucretia Withers, a woman from Lake Tahoe, was eagerly devouring her Farmer’s Fridge’s cauliflower fried rice and energy bites. She was so thrilled by the machine that she’d taken pictures and posted them to Facebook. “This is amazing,” she gushed between bites. “People are looking for a healthy option.”
At 12:30, I decided I was hungry and wanted my own salad. Clicking through the machine’s computer interface, I saw that several varieties were already sold out. I picked the abstemious-sounding “Detox,” since everything else I had eaten in Chicago had been swaddled in cheese. It came with a vinegary dressing that was perhaps lower in calories than was absolutely necessary. I stirred it all together in the cardboard boat and chopped it up with the (provided) recyclable corn-plastic silverware.
The result was surprisingly crunchy and smelled much fresher than the other odors wafting through the place. It wasn’t the best meal I’ve ever had, but it was definitely the best food I’d ever had from a vending machine.