Why a Drexel Professor Wants to Sell More Processed Foods to Low-Income Families

When it comes to healthy nutrition and low-income communities, you’ve probably heard these nuggets of conventional wisdom:

  • Processed foods are unhealthy. The healthiest diets are composed of whole, unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and veggies, healthy protein sources and natural whole grains.
  • Fresh produce is often out of reach for low-income families because it’s more expensive than processed foods, is more prone to spoiling before it can be used and is less likely to be sold in markets in low-income communities.

These things are true. Yet Drexel nutrition professor Jennifer Quinlan is hard at work this spring developing a plan to sell more processed foods in low-income communities. She hasn’t overturned the evidence on that conventional wisdom or lost her mind; instead, she’s seeking a new, sustainable path toward healthy food access.

“Over the years, I’ve seen efforts over and over again to get fresh food into low-income communities and food deserts, and many have failed,” Quinlan says. “Some succeeded, but many of them were highly supported by grants, so the funding source wasn’t sustainable.”

Quinlan aims to demonstrate a sustainable way forward during her upcoming sabbatical year with a small business venture that aims to sell healthy foods in low-income communities. She hopes to show that there is enough of a market for healthy food to turn a workable profit and keep a business going.

And for that purpose, processed foods are the key—healthy processed foods, that is.

“We started processing food for a reason, and that was to get the nutrients needed to the people who need them,” Quinlan says.

Quinlan points out that fresh foods are typically the healthiest choice, but in real life, most people eat a combination of some fresh foods and some processed ones. “In my family, and among my colleagues and friends, we try to pick out healthy processed food products,” she says.

Examples of healthy processed foods include packaged squeezable fruit products made with 100 percent fruit, veggie chips, and shelf-stable fruit cups without added sugar. These products appeal to consumers and are also low-risk for retailers because they are less perishable than fresh foods.

With her small business, launching with funds provided by a new USDA Small Business Innovation Research grant, Quinlan will pilot a new retail model to test the idea that such healthy processed foods would appeal to families in lower-income neighborhoods if they were available and affordable.

Her plan is to work in USDA-recognized food deserts in the region, potentially including the cities of Trenton and Camden, New Jersey, in addition to Philadelphia. She will hire Drexel students to assist in areas including market research and marketing, nutrition sciences and other areas to determine how the small business can best meet the needs of the communities it serves, all while offering healthy food at prices low enough to be affordable, but high enough to make the business profitable and sustainable. She has consulted with colleagues in Drexel’s Close School for Entrepreneurship for advice on launching her small business. She also hopes to hire employees from within the neighborhoods her business will serve.

Aiming to keep overhead costs low, Quinlan expects the final result will be some form of mobile retail, such as a food cart, that can bring products to the places in communities where they are most in-demand.

Quinlan says her business aims to address several of the major issues affecting low-income populations when it comes to health and food access, including:

  • Health issues related to obesity and excess consumption of unhealthy processed foods
  • Food insecurity and hunger among families that struggle to afford healthy food (processed or not)
  • Food sanitation and safety

Quinlan’s unique research focus on food safety in low-income communities has documented that corner stores in these communities are highly likely to have poor storage conditions for fresh food, resulting in a high risk of food-borne illness. But healthy processed foods can be much safer, while still providing nutritional value.

Quinlan says she envisions her small business, and others like it, as only part of the solution among many other efforts to address these challenges. Hers will complement efforts to include nutrition education in schools and communities, support urban farming initiatives and get fresh foods into markets.

Most importantly, Quinlan says, her entrepreneurial approach has real potential to support sustainable improvements in community health.

“Anything that’s really going to bring long-term change in people’s diets and nutrient status has to be market-driven,” she says. “Giving people free food will never be a long-term solution because funding sources for that food eventually dry up.”