Culinary twist: Healthy food that helps the community

Good Bowls taps into UNC innovation network, brings locally sourced meals to lower-income consumers

Social innovation is nothing new at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill. And using its long history of social innovation as a cornerstone, one UNC venture is blazing a trail to improve community health.

If you haven’t already heard of Good Bowls, you will. Launched this summer, its momentum is built on a formula that just makes sense. Good Bowls are healthy, frozen meals designed to address food insecurity in low-income populations. The initiative aims to create economic opportunities for local farmers and food entrepreneurs as well.

Created by Alice Ammerman, Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Good Bowls is gaining traction in local communities across North Carolina. With years of experience in health and nutrition and a drive for innovative clinical and community-based nutrition, Ammerman wanted to find a way to provide healthy meal options to in-need populations, while also finding a way to prevent food waste and create job opportunities.

With the resources and support from UNC’s innovation and entrepreneurial (I&E) ecosystem, Ammerman was able to turn her idea into action and watch it flourish.

As a participant in the annual Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop, an entrepreneurial masterclass for faculty innovators, Ammerman was able to start shaping her idea. She participates in the Shuford E-minor Program as one of the Entrepreneurs in Residence, and teaches a course in Public Health Entrepreneurship. Ammerman and a team of ten students and staff are participating in the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s StartUp-UNC program, which assists University faculty and staff as they develop business plans and helps them hone the skills needed to launch a new venture. Through these programs and others like CUBE, Innovate Carolina, Kickstart Venture Services and the Carolina Angel Network, Ammerman is learning vital lessons and concepts that she’s applying to the Good Bowls model.

“Implementing the concept of try and try again has helped fuel Good Bowls’ success,” says Ammerman. “Connecting with UNC groups for mentorship and funding has been essential for Good Bowls.”

After collaborating with others on campus to develop and refine the idea for Good Bowls, Ammerman launched a pilot study with funding provided by the C. Felix Harvey Award. Created by members of the Harvey family to honor the legacy of their father’s entrepreneurial spirit, the award is given each year to faculty whose proposals best embody approaches that directly and positively affect constituencies outside the University.

And Ammerman’s students are excited and ready to get involved with Good Bowls as well, whether through internships or other ways of support. Even former students have moved on to create their own ventures, including Patrick Mateer who founded Seal the Seasons, a UNC-affiliated startup that uses flash freezing technology to bring produce from local farms to grocery stores across many local communities. Two of Ammerman’s formal doctoral students, Linden Thayer and Beth Hopping, started Food Insight Group with a mission to help communities build just, equitable, and resilient food systems, and have remained involved in the launch of Good Bowls.

“Social entrepreneurship allows students to learn how to sustain public health efforts and impact with a business model,” says Ammerman.  

As Good Bowls continues to grow, Ammerman and her team plan to measure the human impact. This includes in-need populations getting access to healthier food. They’ll also assess the economic impact of their work, including revenue generation for local farmers as well as the creating food-related jobs in community kitchens.

“Although it may fly in the face of competitive business practices, we plan to make our recipes available to the public to enhance the nutritional benefits of the program by encouraging more home cooking,” says Ammerman. “We want to get them hooked on the fact that healthy food can also taste good.”

Good Bowls is using a southern twist of the Mediterranean diet, which is strongly associated with a number of health benefits.

“We want to help consumers apply things that are evidence – based and culturally relevant,” says Ammerman. “Southern food has a number of positive elements, like traditional sweet potatoes and greens which are included in many Good Bowls recipes. Our pilot study showed that both higher and lower income consumers like the taste of the bowls, including the children!”

Good Bowls integrates southern staples like collard greens, peppers, corn and beans.

And it turns out that what tastes good is also good for local economies. Because Good Bowls doesn’t need a big production facility, it can make use of underutilized rural commercial kitchens and local produce to prepare the bowls and provide local job opportunities. Good Bowls will use “cosmetically challenged” or grade B produce when available since the food is chopped and cooked. This keeps the price down and provides a market for high quality but “ugly” produce that would normally be wasted.

The pricing structure of Good Bowls also offers a unique option for consumers. Using a buy-one given one or cost-offset model. Customers of higher end stores will pay more in order to subsidize the cost at corner stores in food deserts.  Good Bowls can also be purchased using SNAP (formerly Food Stamps). 

Although Good Bowls is already seeing success, Ammerman continues to test the concept.

“We have a social experiment in the works,” says Ammerman. “Several employers who don’t want their staff to have to depend on unhealthy vending machine products are testing Good Bowls as a healthy lunch alternative. We’re working on the logistics of how to make this work.”

“I’m realistic that a few healthy, frozen meals won’t alter people’s diets on their own,” says Ammerman. “But if Good Bowls can help introduce people to healthy good tasting alternatives they may be willing to try more fruits and vegetables and also begin to cook more on their own, putting them on the right path to better health.”

For more information on Good Bowls, visit them on Facebook or  Instagram