Picture a restaurant chain that charges different prices, depending on the neighborhood. It may seem like a scam, but in reality, it’s how former Wall Street guru Sam Polk is feeding the hungry and democratizing healthy food.
Polk was once a hedge fund trader who admits to having been addicted to making money — millions of it every year. At age 27 he had already been on Wall Street for six years, but, as he admitted to PBS, he “basically felt empty.”
He decided to leave Wall Street and turned to tables, particularly to local tables, after having a wakeup call in front of a particularly poignant food documentary. While watching “A Place at the Table,” Polk became horrified by the notion that his city of Los Angeles was so segregated with regard to the haves and have-nots.
“It was easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving,” he writes, especially because, as he notes, “Hunger in America looks strange.”
While we would expect those who are facing hunger every day to be rail-thin, the fact is that in America, many people who are food insecure are obese.
A 2010 study of more than 6,000 adults showed that wages and BMI were inversely related, meaning that poorer people were far more likely to suffer from obesity. A 2009 study showed that many of these sufferers are children; the study, which surveyed more than 12,000 children between the ages of two and 19, showed that rates of severe obesity were approximately 1.7 times higher among poorer children.
People with lower incomes tend to rely on cheaper foods; fast food is cheap and easy to come by, and in food deserts, many of which are in less affluent communities, fresh produce can be scarce and expensive.
“In the span of a day, a kid can go from being hungry, missing lunch, to eating KFC for dinner,” says Polk. “That fact—that many kids are both starving and obese—was what got to me.”
Upping the Learning Curve and Feeding the Hungry with Groceryships
Polk recently overhauled his own diet to include more plant-based recipes and fewer processed foods. Even from a place of means, it was a difficult battle to fight. He knew, then, that feeding the hungry wouldn’t be as simple as making healthy food available — he had to teach people how to use it.
Polk decided to found Groceryships in 2013, a program dedicated to feeding the hungry that revolutionizes more traditional programs. With a philosophy of teaching a man to fish, the program seeks not only to ensure that LA families have healthy food, but also that they know how to use it.
“Groceryships is working on a macro issue in a micro way,” reads Groceryships’ mission statement. “We work with small groups of families for long periods of time, providing education, temporary financial support, resources, and a sacred space for each person to share about their struggles and triumphs. We believe true change comes not from the top down, but from the inside out, and that changes in one person can have a ripple effect through a family, a community, a city, a nation, and eventually a world.”
The program gives each family a weekly food budget but also invites them to weekly two-hour meetings over the course of several months, where they learn the cooking, nutrition, and shopping skills needed to cook healthy plant-based meals and get support to help overcome challenges.
A New Challenge: Feeding the Hungry with Healthy Fast Food
In Pacific Palisades, where the per capita income is $95,000, childhood obesity is at 11 percent and life expectancy is 85. In South Los Angeles, where the per capita income is $13,000, childhood obesity is 30 percent, and life expectancy decreases to 75.
This discrepancy has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with means, and it’s something that Polk is still striving to change every day.
“The ability to eat healthy foods and maintain a healthy weight shouldn’t be luxury items for the upper classes, but rather human rights shared by all,” writes Polk. “We’re committed to turning this belief into a reality.”
Polk has set his sights on a new project, a logical continuation, in his mind, of Groceryships.
Along with fellow former finance professional David Foster, Polk created Everytable, a new healthy food chain with prices on a sliding scale. Both of the Everytable locations offer the same menu of healthy, prepared meals, like kale chicken Caesar salad, pozole rojo, and Jamaican jerk chicken, but at very different prices: in south Los Angeles, where the per capita income is $13,000 a year, the meals cost about $4; in hip, downtown LA, they cost $8.
“Four bucks is a great price here compared to fast food, which is the predominant option,” Foster says. And even the downtown branch offers competitive prices when compared to $10-$12 meals at chains like Whole Foods and Sweet Green.
“It’s basically making sure that everyone can afford healthy food,” Polk says. “In a world where inequality is clearly growing and becoming seen as structural, we think that this is the time for a new business that questions that fundamental assumption that prices should be the same for everyone.”
It’s a concept that, just ten years ago, might have floundered. But with an increasingly activist generation, the philosophy behind a company is just as important — if not more so — than the product they peddle. Everytable is hitting all of its targets: donating day-old food to local food banks, creating menus that include healthy, whole foods, and allowing patrons to feel good about every dollar they spend.
But the cheaper outpost of the chain isn’t bleeding money, either; these financial gurus have created centralized kitchen that seriously diminishes the need for staff and allows even the $4 meals to contribute to an — admittedly meager — profit margin.
“At $4 per meal in South LA, we’re not making much money from each meal sold,” Foster explains to NPR. “But if we get enough people to come out — and we’re already seeing great traction — it will actually be profitable. The location downtown will also be profitable. So together they’re part of this company that’s working to improve access. The higher-priced location will help fund the growth of new locations in both markets.”
And of course, that’s the next step.
Polk and Foster are both looking toward the future of the company, hoping to open tens of thousands of Everytable outposts, feeding the hungry all across America. This new concept of a healthy chain food store may help bring the knowledge and accessibility required to disintegrate food deserts everywhere.
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Improving the Food System and Fighting Obesity, Creatively: Foodie Underground
Healthy food image via Shutterstock