Flint, Mich. is what Joshua Introne would call a “food desert.” Most major conventional food retailers have moved out of the city limits, leaving only smaller local stores available to residents. In many cases, these retailers sell unhealthy, old or spoiled food, leaving families without access to a variety of healthy, high-quality options.
“At the same time, a variety of factors have led to a degradation of trust and information flow in the community, so residents haven’t been able to organize to address the problem,” said Introne. “As a consequence, there is little market pressure on the remaining retailers to improve their practices.”
Introne, an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Information, has been looking for ways to combat this issue. The project took shape when he joined forces with professors Rick Sadler in MSU’s Division of Public Health and Advertising and PR’s Ashley Sanders-Jackson. Sadler had been studying the problem of food access in Flint for several years and Sanders-Jackson is an expert in health and risk communication. The team was approached by the MSU Extension to develop a tool for nutrition education in the city. After conducting focus groups, they found that not only is the food itself a problem, but there’s also a fundamental lack of trust and information flow in the community, leaving people without the resources to find healthy food.
The solution? Flint Eats, a social application that will allow Flint residents and food retailers to communicate openly about available resources within the community.
The initial version of the app will be released in the spring of 2018, and is geared toward the retailers. If a store has a deal, they can post about it on the app and it will appear in a social feed for users, as well as on a map interface. But when the next update comes out in early summer, consumers will be able to post reviews as well. Introne hopes this will provide incentive for business owners to improve the quality of their food products.
“The app is designed to address the trust and information flow issue, while at the same time encouraging people to talk about bad actors and maybe put some market pressure on them in order to get them to change their behaviors,” said Introne.
Once the app is in its full-feature mode, there will also be icons on the map that will give an indication of freshness and quality based on community reviews. The system is geographically encoded so users can search for specific deals anywhere on the map or get alerted to deals and sales upon walking into a store.
In addition to the map, there’s also a very social component of the application. Like other social media, there will be a feed in which individuals can post reviews, recipes, deals and tips about healthy eating. Each of these posts will be tagged so that if someone were to search “apples,” all deals, tips and recipes that include apples would appear.
“There’s a library of all the locations in the area, as well as a library of food items,” said Introne. “Then, of course, you have a profile where you can see your posts, you can follow people and you can figure out what’s going on. Everything is going to be driven by the people in the community.”
A Community-Based Movement
Though on the surface this application is presented as an app for food, Introne hopes it will help knit together some of the social fabric that has frayed over the years since the departure of General Motors.
“The key is that we have to build some trust back into the community,” said Introne. “We have to give residents a sense of ownership over the food system. The project is not an app. The project is trying to address some fundamental social and economic problems. The app is really the visible part of this much larger effort.”
Flint Eats is also providing a new way to gather data on how to better communicate healthy eating habits. The team behind the app will be sending out various types of messages and tips, in hopes of tracking which types of messages work the best.
“We can change whether or not the message is framed as a story, if it’s just some information, if we use an example or if we don’t use an example,” said Introne. “Then we can watch how far that message spreads. We can change how we target different sorts of messages. Ultimately, what we really want to do is begin correlating people’s purchasing behaviors with the messaging we provide.”
For example, the app might run a campaign on kale. If more kale is being sold — and this campaign is repeated with similar results multiple times — Introne will be able to say that the messages are motivating people to purchase healthier foods. By providing users with the ability to take a picture and add information about the price, researchers will also be able to keep an inventory of the food sources in real time.
Introne believes Flint Eats will have a huge impact for the community thanks to the research collected from user’s purchasing behaviors. Data from the app will provide researchers with a dynamic food inventory that they can use to monitor the food that is available in the city. The project is a part of a larger ongoing effort to address food access in Flint, and will also be useful for other food system efforts like the Flint Fresh Mobile Market and Veggie Boxes programs and MSUE’s Refresh MI Store initiative.
“We can see over time if markets start carrying different kinds of things,” said Introne. “The long play is to see if we can do research on the community itself to see if the availability of food within the community changes as a result of the app.”
A significant part of the process has been to organize a community group to help guide app development and assist with its rollout. Ultimately, the app will be transferred to the community, in which the steering committee will transform itself into a nonprofit.
“They will own the app and they will continue to figure out how to fund it going forward,” said Introne. “MSU is not building an app to provide a Band-Aid solution for the problem. Instead, we’re using this research project to enhance the capacity of the Flint community to address the problem on its own.”
By Kaitlin Dudlets