The Microwave Meals Cookbook is a 3-month research project that spawned from the idea of reducing food waste by turning it into meals. VittleWise, the organization that teaches food education and food waste prevention, wanted to provide a resource to give to underprivileged communities who rely on donated food (mostly food surplus) to help change diets and further reduce food waste.
My Role: As CMO, I took on the roles as UX Researcher & Product Designer.
Project Type: Cookbook
Company: VittleWise, NFP
40% of the food in America is thrown away meanwhile, 1 in 4 people in America are food insecure. An increase in healthier food waste options are being donated to food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, yet diets around these locations still remain the same. Much of the food being donated is still going to waste. The objective of this project is to try and provide a resource to underprivileged communities that will educate those who rely on donated food on how to incorporate healthier donated food options into their diets; reducing food waste and providing a better diet for the individual.
Many underprivileged communities are considered to be food desert areas; an area devoid of any access to a grocery store or healthy food options within a 1-mile radius. Since access to healthy ingredients, like fruits and vegetables, is limited to people in food desert areas, so is their knowledge around cooking and preparing the ingredients. By having a resource that shows how to incorporate healthy donated food items into their everyday diets will help improve eating habits and food item selections.
I met with Chicago-based food organizations, restaurants, and any place that donates or receives surplus food. My goal was to get an idea of how the structure works between the business donating the food and the organization receiving it. How does the process work? What were their pain points? What are the common ingredients donated?
There is still strong pushback from food retailers around donating food. There is a lack of awareness about the legality of donating food waste to organizations and also the fear of any bad publicity around mishandled food donations. Restaurants were more open to donating any excess food items they. The difficulty with restaurants was more centered around timing and inconsistency. Restaurants are unsure what and how much bulk food items will be left over at the end of the night. Kitchen staff are also understaffed and do not have the time to contact organizations regarding food pickups. Restaurants also had very little surplus ingredients. Most of what was leftover at the end of the day were prepared menu items (i.e. Sandwiches, salads, and soups).
Compiling a Donated List
After a couple months of interviewing food establishments and following the food donation process, I was able to compile a list of commonly donated ingredients donated by three different food establishments: Restaurants, Local Grocery Stores, and Big Box Food Chains. I separated out each item into food categories in order to simplify the recipe development process later. Below is the list compiled from all three types of establishments. While there are many one-off items, these below are the items most commonly donated, mentioned by interviewees and through observation. If you wish to view the common ingredients list by establishment type, you can click here.
Personas & Journey Mapping
After spending time researching online, reading studies and observing where the majority of the donated food was going to and who was consuming it, I created personas based on this compiled data. The areas of interest that could benefit the most from a food education resource were
- Single mothers living in food desert areas who rely on food assistance programs.
- College students who are becoming more food insecure with rising college debt and are limited to very few sources for storing and cooking food.
Persona 1 (Example):
Low-income single parents, like this individual, struggle to find the means of affording food. This individual has been on and off food assistance programs since her child has been born due to finding consistent work. The area she can afford to live in is considered a food desert (void of any grocery store or healthy food options within a 1-mile radius). Between work and caring for her child, she has very little time to go shopping and make food. The closest places to find food are convenience stores
I really wanted to learn the pain points of each persona and the typical approach each persona would take to find the resource. How would each persona feel in the situation and what would engage each persona to use the resource? I drew up a scenario of every situation each persona may potentially take to find the resource. This process allowed me to visualize what features may be required for the resource to benefit each persona.
I partnered with the City of Chicago and various food pantries around Chicago to host a series of focus groups. Most participants fit the majority of the qualifications that matched the personas I had previously developed. I facilitated each focus group by providing different methods of cooking healthy donated ingredients and asking questions about taste, ease of use, and how likely participants were to try at home. The goal was to find what the average experience level is with cooking healthy donated items and what cooking methods participants were eager to duplicate at home.
I gathered all the items from the commonly donated ingredients list to begin developing recipes. For two weeks I supervised a group of volunteers in a test kitchen to come up with recipes that incorporated healthy donated ingredients into each recipe. By the end of two weeks, we had 21 recipes (7 breakfast, 7 lunch and 7 dinner) that I could use to create a cookbook.
Using InDesign I developed a template for each page within the book. There are a total of 34 pages. Each section contains an educational page that provided cooking methods brought up during focus groups. When researching companies that did print-on-demand, we developed a template based on printing specifications.
Testing & Evaluating
Remote Focus Groups
I worked with a group of editors to finalize a complete PDF version of the cookbook. I distributed the PDF version to selected people who volunteered to create each recipe. Each volunteer wrote notes of what they liked and didn’t like about each recipe and mentioned any issues that may have occurred.
I did an initial print of 24 cookbooks and distributed them to a list of early adopters that matched the persona specifications. Once a week I would visit the homes of these early adopters to watch them make some of the recipes and to listen to their feedback on the cookbook.
To promote the book, I worked with the board of directors to receive enough grant money to do the first print of 1500 copies. We distributed the copies to various food banks, soup kitchen, college campuses, and the department of family service offices. Shortly after we launched the book, we received calls and emails from organization across America interested in distributing the cookbook in their communities.
Since launching the book, we have had over 15,000 copies distributed across the nation and over 50,000 downloads of the PDF. Various organizations have adopted the cookbook as part of their curriculum 100 classes have been taught by different organizations who adopted the cookbook into a curriculum. We continue to receive emails from individuals that wish to show appreciation for the book.