127Affordable, convenient, highly nutritious food — in an urban area where residents have lacked access to healthy food choices.  Sounds great, and it is.  Couple that with the fact that much of the food might otherwise be wasted if not effectively captured and utilized, and it’s even better.  That’s Daily Table in Dorchester (MA) — Doug Rauch’s innovative non-profit effort to bring affordable, healthy food choices to communities.  By providing highly nutritious food at prices that are competitive with fast-food options, Rauch seeks to help consumers shift to a healthier diet.  And by capturing excess food, he is aiding the environment.  Through it all, he is effectively advancing the conversation on several key challenges of the food system — including nutrition and health, equity, and wasted food.

Last month I was fortunate to get the opportunity to tour Daily Table and discuss operations with founder Doug Rauch — a truly impactful experience.  Walking through the main doors, I was immediately struck by the attractive store environment.  Clean.  Bright.  Open.  With attractive signage one would find in a Starbucks or Trader Joe’s location.  I immediately noted two signs reading “Welcome to Daily Table” and “home of GREAT prices.”  And as I learned, the prices are indeed great — and so is the food.  Immediately to my left on entering I noted an impressive array of heat-and-eat healthy meal choices — entrees, side dishes, soups, and stews.  Multiple soup choices included potato and squash, beef and vegetable, and Tuscan fish and white bean soup (all generous portions ranging from just $1.99 to $2.99).  Side dishes included cooked broccoli, sautéed cabbage and carrots, steamed baby carrots, black beans and brown rice, and broiled potatoes (ranging from $.99 to $1.99).  Entrees included roasted chicken with rice and broccoli, beef with broccoli and brown rice, and meatloaf with spinach and rice — all value priced.  All of these nutritious dishes were made in Daily Table’s on-site kitchen, which is open and visible to all shoppers.  The kitchen plays a huge role in the success of Daily Table, with Rauch noting that a significant percentage of sales is generated from the prepared meals near the store’s front entrance.

But there was much more.  Large to-go salads were available for $1.49.  Fruit and yogurt smoothies, multiple organic yogurt choices, milk and eggs, hommus, chicken, salmon burgers, wild Ahi tuna and chicken packages, and even healthy snacks like organic coconut curry chips — all at very affordable prices.

A colorful sign imparted the following message:  We hope you reward yourself with our delicious, convenient wholesome food that helps you feel your best.  We’re committed to food that keeps you moving forward in every way, never holds you back.  That goal was evident.

I commented on the large selection of vegetables on hand, including apples, oranges, bananas, strawberries, potatoes, onions, daikon radishes, and collards.  Rauch agreed, adding that since it was December the selection of fresh vegetables was less than what would typically be on hand in season.  Still, the prevalence of large bags of frozen corn, spinach, carrots, broccoli, okra, and mixed vegetables — all at very affordable prices — was very impressive and sure to be an attractive option for shoppers.  Many varieties of canned vegetables (at 2 for $1) were available, along with cans of unsweetened applesauce, bags of brown rice, quinoa, quick oats, and organic bread — all at similarly affordable prices.  All healthy choices.

But there is even more to Daily Table — there is a definite undercurrent of excitement running through the store.  You can see it in the pride of the staff, and you can definitely see it among the customers — who are excited by the great selection of affordable healthy food choices in a pristine setting.  More to follow on that.

At The Last Food Mile conference in December 2014, I recalled Rauch noting that nutrition isn’t just a financial issue, it’s an issue of convenience.  All of us, regardless of income level, are constrained by time.  So in addition to providing affordable nutritious food choices, Daily Table is focused on making healthy meal choices convenient.  In this effort, Rauch draws on his 30+ years of food sector experience with Trader Joe’s and his Conscious Capitalism focus — seeking to create a durable model that benefits the community through improved nutrition and health.

Rauch’s model takes advantage of one of the key problems of the industrialized food system in developed countries like the U.S. — confusion over the shelf life of food items.  Picky consumers are confused by dating terminology on food — including terms such as sell-by, best before, and use-by.  That confusion, coupled with our culture of abundance regarding food supplies, leads to conservative decision-making.  When an item is nearing one of those dates, consumers might skip the purchase or, if they have already done so, will pass up the smell/taste test and simply discard the item.  A “when in doubt, throw it out” mindset is common (and costly, both to consumers and the environment).

This mindset in turn shapes the behavior of retailers, who seek sell-by/expiration dates as far into the future as possible to maximize the potential for sales.  And while consumer food waste due to sell-by date confusion gets much attention, the vast amount of food waste in the production-to-retail chain due to shelf life concerns tends to go under the radar.  Much edible (and healthy) produce never makes it off the farm due to perceived short shelf life.  Similarly, manufactured products are frequently turned away by retailers despite considerable remaining shelf life.  Think dairy products.  Too often such perfectly edible food goes to landfill, where it creates additional environmental problems in the form of air and water pollution.

This built-in conservatism provides opportunity for Daily Table to capture many high-nutrition food products at steep discounts.  The beauty of the model — beyond the obvious health benefits, community building, and prevention of considerable food waste — is that it is durable and scalable.  The profit margin allows Daily Table to remain a viable operation that doesn’t solely rely on charitable donations to survive.  And it is working.  Rauch noted that the average transaction price from individuals residing in the community is rising steadily, indicating that a greater percentage of food purchases from this group is going toward healthy food (perhaps the best metric of all and central to Daily Table’s mission).  And overall financial results are improving monthly.

The store model also builds community by providing affordable nutrition in a dignified, attractive setting.  Various foods are sampled just as one would find in any high-end food store.  Daily Table also solicits favorite family recipes from its customers as a way to share the love of great food.  The attractive store design is reflective of stores in upscale regions, and it is clear that the store is looking out for its customers by seeking to provide the healthiest food options possible.  Rauch noted, for example, that Daily Table doesn’t carry orange juice due to all of the added sugars contained in most brands.  He then pointed to a large selection of yogurt, noting that the great price makes it an attractive option for kids’ lunches versus unhealthy choices.  Daily Table also offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee. There’s a strong feeling of inclusiveness, and community.  And like all great partnerships, the store clearly acknowledges the contributions of donors and suppliers (like Ready Pac, Kayem Foods, Cedar’s, Stonyfield, Hood, etc.) that help make the operation run successfully.

Back to the excitement factor.  Toward the end of my visit, I struck up a conversation with a customer at the checkout station.  We each had a strawberry-banana-vanilla yogurt smoothie (priced at just $1.69 and better than I make at home).  I commented on how delicious the smoothie was, and we both agreed that one can never go wrong when you combine strawberries, bananas, and vanilla yogurt in a smoothie.  The great price was added sweetness.  With a smile, she added “these are made fresh here daily, you know.”  We both signed up for memberships, which are free.  My new friend and her companion mentioned that this was their first trip to Daily Table.  A friend had told them they simply had to come and shop here, and they were clearly enjoying their experience.  The cashier rang up their purchases — an impressive amount of healthy food items which filled four bags, and which totaled just $21.87.  “Oh my goodness,” they exclaimed, clearly thrilled with the value.  I found myself thinking that a similar purchase at a typical food store could have been three or even four times the price.

Healthy food.  Great selection.  Convenience.  Affordability.  Dignity.  Community.  All of these themes stood out to me, and they were effectively summarized in the following message on a chalkboard by the exit:

At Daily Table, we believe that delicious, wholesome and affordable food should be available to all.  We are on a mission to help communities make great choices around food by making it easy for them to shop for tasty, healthy, convenient and truly affordable meals and groceries.  And we do this in a respectful manner that honors you, our customer. 

Well said.  Daily Table is indeed delivering on its mission of providing delicious, wholesome, affordable food to all — and helping to change the way people in the community eat.  With alarming obesity and overweight statistics in the U.S., and estimated annual U.S. medical costs associated with obesity nearing $150 billion, innovative models like Daily Table — which provide multiple social, environmental, and financial “wins” for multiple stakeholders — are clearly needed.  There are great lessons to be found here to bring about positive change in our food system.

I went out and gathered my thoughts, reflecting on all of the positive results and energy emanating from this project prior to beginning the long drive home.  But before starting up the car, I couldn’t resist running back in for one more smoothie.