The USDA defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas … largely due to a lack of healthy food providers.” One solution to food deserts in impoverished urban areas could be reusing closed post offices as food distribution centers.
Since 1971 the US Post Office has closed 17 percent of its post offices. In 2011, it announced plans to close an additional 3,700 branches. From 2012 to 2015, it reduced hours of operation at 13,000 branches. The disappearance of a local post office can mean the loss of a hub for social interaction, and another vacant building on already hollowing main streets. For communities, an empty post office becomes a dormant property that could be used to benefit the local population in new ways.
That was the starting point behind a concept from a group of students from Washington University in St. Louis. Developed by Anu Samarajiva, Lanxi Zhang, and Irum Javed, their First Class Meal proposal aims to reinvigorate US Postal Service buildings to address urban food insecurity.
“We want to connect underutilized capacity within the postal system – building space, trucks and human capital resources – with the desire for increased reach and food storage capacity within food banks and agencies,” said Samarajiva.
The project “has the potential to reinvigorate the USPS and more strongly define its role as a community resource while strengthening the existing network of community food providers.”
Using the Market Station Post Office in downtown Los Angeles as concept model, the students note that an estimated 1.4 million people in Los Angeles County struggle with food insecurity – the highest share of food-insecure residents in the country.
First Class Meal envisions adapting closed and underutilized post office branches to collect and store food, and use postal system vehicles and personnel to distribute the food to those in need. Related services at the branches could include farmers markets, healthy eating and cooking classes, and even on-site food growing and production. It is one of several projects featured in the Reprogramming the City book that offer resourceful solutions to urban food desert problems.
In 2014, the US Postal Service Inspector General wrote in a white paper that given the postal service’s declining income, the agency was open to ideas for reinventing declining postal service infrastructure “to provide innovative services that would yield new revenue.” First Class Meal may be a concept delivered sooner than expected.
“We want to connect underutilized capacity within the postal system – building space, trucks and human capital resources – with the desire for increased reach and food storage capacity within food banks and agencies.”– Anu Samarajiva
For 44 of the most innovative urban repurposing projects from 17 countries check out the Reprogramming the City book.