Healthy food service prompts skeptical response in North Lawndale

FoodQ delivery service, booming on South Side, met with resistance on West Side

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

A delivery service that aims to bring healthy meals to neighborhoods that don't have many healthy food options hasn't gotten as far on the West Side as it has on the South Side and members of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council's Health and Wellness Subcommittee could think of a few reasons why. 

Known as FoodQ, the service was developed by BCBS Institute, a subsidiary of Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. Launched this winter, its basic concept is similar to certain diet meal plans. The customer pays a subscription in exchange for healthy, cooked meals delivered every day. The idea is to provide an affordable, healthy alternative to fast food.  

But when BCBS officials made their case during the subcommittee's March 19 meeting, the committee members questioned how affordable it actually was, especially when customers couldn't pay for it with LINK and prepaid cards. And they also questioned just how healthy the meals actually are.

According to its website, BCBS institute works to improve health by addressing social and environmental conditions that contribute to medical issues. Haesun Chang, one of its program managers, explained during the March meeting that the idea for FoodQ grew out of her employer's work to address "pharmacy deserts" — areas that don't have a lot of medical options. In communities that have fast food restaurants, corner stores and not much else, there are residents who want to eat healthy, Chang said.

Chang said that they decided to put something together that would be within the similar price range as fast food options. And, because they wanted it to be available anywhere in those neighborhoods, they went with a delivery.

As Chang noted, the institute tapped KitchFix, a West Town-based company that prepars meals that fit specific dietary needs. Linh Pham, a fellow program manager, explained that customers can choose meals online, where they can check each meal's nutritional values. Customers can either pay $10 per meal and a $6 delivery fee, or pay a subscription and get a free meal for every meal he or she buys. The latter option, Pham said, means that subscribers basically pay $5 per meal.

Chang explained that while the number of South Side customers "has been picking up like rainstorm," they haven't had as much luck on the West Side, which is why they came to the meeting.

Chang said that, although she and her team would love for FoodQ to accept LINK cards, the approval process for accepting that method of payment could take as long as four years. Since their priority was to get the program up and running, they didn't want to wait, she said. 

Debra Wesley, the meeting's chair, argued that this undercut what the institute was trying to do.

"If you're targeting communities that are food deserts, and part of the reason why they're food deserts is they're impoverished areas (which is why grocery stores aren't there) how do you not factor it in as one of the ways folks can purchase products?" she asked.

Chang responded that their own research shows that the average income in the West Side communities that FoodQ is trying to serve is $30,000. 

Wesley said that the figure ignores the fact that much of that income goes into rent and other necessary expenses, so residents may not have as much disposable income. 

"The dollars, quote-unquote, that they get from SNAP, are important." she said. "Those are valuable dollars, those dollars are important to helping them feed their families."

Several members of the subcommittee also argued that the institute's positioning of FoodQ as an alternative to a McDonalds doesn't work, since a McDonalds meal doesn't cost $10.

Steven Foley, who said that he has experience as a nutritionist, also had questions about how healthy the food really is. He said that, based on nutritional information he had seen, the carbohydrate count of one of the meals is high for diabetics.

Selma Sims, a farm manager at Gardeneers, a North Lawndale organizations that grows healthy food for Chicago schools, argued that FoodQ needed an education component, which Chang said they would look into.

In the end, Wesley said, while she supports the idea, she feels the institute doesn't really make the meals affordable. 

"I'm a little concerned around your thought process," she said.  "And that's not saying that's not a good thing. But when a patient walks through the door [at Mt. Sinai Hospital], we want to factor in what they bring to the table. Because it's expensive living in Chicago. And if you're making minimum wage — if you add it up, that's not cheap."


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