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The Dreadful Inconvenience of Salad

20141112

The Dreadful Inconvenience of Salad

Farmer's Fridge 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.) 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. The community-center machine (Olga Khazan/The Atlantic) “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?