Joshua Introne, assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Media and Information, has helped develop a solution to what he would describe as a “food desert” in Flint, Michigan.
A “food desert” can be described as a city in which major conventional food retailers are the minority and smaller, local retailers with mainly unhealthy, old or spoiled food are the primary food retail option.
Introne, assisted by Rick Sadler, professor of public health, and Ashley Sanders-Jackson, professor of advertising and public relations, created a social application, called Flint Eats, that aims to allow Flint residents and food retailers to communicate openly about available resources within the community.
“The key is that we have to build some trust back into the community,” Introne said. “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.”
The app, set for release this spring, is designed to address the trust and information flow issue and to apply market pressure on food retailers to approve food product quality. Introne hopes this will provide incentive for business owners to improve the quality of their food products.
Features of the app include icons on the map that will give an indication of freshness and quality based on community reviews and a geographically encoded system where users can search for specific deals anywhere on the map or get alerted to deals and sales upon walking into a store. Users also will be able to post reviews, recipes, deals and tips about healthy eating.
Introne believes Flint Eats will have a huge impact for the community thanks to the research collected from users’ 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,” Introne said. “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.”
The app ultimately 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,” Introne said. “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.”