An app and a carrot

Norma’s family steers clear of vegetables. Even when she receives veggies from her food pantry, she knows only a few ways to prepare them and her family grows bored with the bland tastes and textures. She is in a cooking rut. 

Norma is not alone. Peter Clarke and Susan Evans, who have worked with food banks nationwide since 1992, have found that pantry clients often don’t know how to prepare appealing and varied meals using fresh produce. So, over the last decade, Clarke and Evans have sought to solve this problem by building, field-testing, and disseminating digital tools, including an app: VeggieBook.

There’s a catch, though. “You can’t just offer an app and expect miracles to happen,” said Clarke, professor of communication. “You may be able to get folks to download it, but then you have to show them ways to use the app in their lives.” 

Clarke and Evans have found that certain “triggers” are crucial for spurring use of VeggieBook. 

“Guidance in exploring the app’s helpful features, along with having vegetables on hand, encourages users to experiment with new and flavorful servings right away,” said Evans, a research scientist.

“One of our clients once told me: ‘Wow, in the carrot section, there’s a recipe for carrot pieces baked with apple slices. I never would have thought of that, but my family loves it, and the recipe uses ingredients I usually have around.’” 

The field trial

In 2017 the group conducted a controlled field trial using the Veggiebook app at 15 Los Angeles food pantries with nearly 300 families over an 11-week period.  Results: Participants with the app prepared 38% more vegetable-based dishes than control families without the app.

Veggiebook is in English and Spanish.

Clarke and Evans also discovered family dynamics around cooking often improve with the app, and young people are more inspired when they are part of the meal decision-making process. 

When Norma’s son, Mariano, was able to access VeggieBook as part of the field trial, he uncovered an untapped passion for culinary arts and began helping his mother in the kitchen. 

Now, according to Norma, “No veggie is off-limits for Mariano.”

Susan Evans and Peter Clarke received the International Communication Association’s 2018 Award for Applied Research for their work.