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Yale Entrepreneurs Want to Promote Healthy Eating To Children In Urban Neighborhoods

Goal is to get healthful food in inner-city corner stores

William Weir

December 29, 2010

If you're trying to promote healthy eating for children, how do you compete with fast food?

The answer might be in borrowing some of fast-food's methods, say Isadora Tang and Ben Beineke. The two recent Yale Business School graduates have founded MyLu Foods, a company designed to bring healthy snacks to inner-city neighborhoods. It's part of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, which helps Yale students and recent graduates start up new ventures. Tang and Beineke, both 27, graduated in May.

Part of the inspiration for the start-up was the closing of Shaw's on Whalley Avenue, the only major supermarket near downtown New Haven.

"It was the closing that really made it clear that New Haven is a food desert," Tang says. For those without a vehicle, they say, options for buying groceries are severely limited. For many, corner stores are the main option. These are often expensive and healthful foods aren't always available there.

Tang and Beineke want to upend the conventional business wisdom that healthful foods won't sell in urban neighborhoods. They believe the inverse is true: People in the inner-city don't buy it because it's not availalble, or at least it's not marketed to them.

For MyLu Foods (they named the business after the daughter of a friend), they're focusing their marketing efforts toward kids.

"We want to create something where it's fun to eat healthy," says Tang, 27. She says that some of the tricks that junk-food manufacturers use toys, cartoon characters might seem gimmicky, but they are effective. "We want to replicate that experience, that fun."

Whether that means that there will be a "Carrot Man" in the near future remains to be seen. Much of their work so far has been taste-testing foods at an after-school program in New Haven. They surveyed the children on their food likes and dislikes. The ultimate test, though, was looking at what they actually ate.

"We'd go through the trash and see what they threw out," Beineke says.

Among the favorites were the usual suspsects like peanut butter and jelly, but there were a few surprises.

"I've actually had kids asking me for more celery," she says.

They hope to have their products, still a work in progress, on stores' shelves by spring. From that, they hope to get some marketing data to attract a distributor. Packaging will feature multi-compartment plastic trays, to keep the different components separate and fresh. Beineke says a big part of the appeal is that kids will assemble their own snacks.

"It's not cooking, but it is creating food from different components," Beineke says. "We want to sort of break down some of the barriers that kids have formed about foods that they're not familiar with."

One of the things that complicates their mission is that so many food manufacturers are promoting their products as "health-conscious," even when they're decidedly not. For instance, something might not have any trans fats, as touted on the package, but it might have a lot of sugar.

Another challenge, Tang says, is the unspoken divide between neighborhoods in cities and the very different offerings at the different in those neighborhoods. She recently talked to a woman in an inner-city neighborhood who was surprised that she could buy bottles of pure fruit juice without added sugar. All she had to do, Tang says, was go a few blocks to another store.

The Hartford Food System, a nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger and promoting nutrition, has created programs in the past focusing on getting healthful food in neighborhood stores. Executive Director Martha Page said those efforts have been effective, and is optimistic that MyLu Foods' business model could find success.

"I certainly think that the demand is there, that's certainly been our experience," Page says. "If they offer [healthful foods] in ways that are attractive to the consumer, they actually will sell."

For more information about MyLu Foods, go to http://www.mylufoods.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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