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MIT students explore food sustainability

As students approached the homestretch of the fall semester, many were focused on completing final projects and preparing for exams. During this time of year, some students may neglect their well-being to the point of skipping meals. To help alleviate end-of-term stress and to give students a delicious study break, the Food Security Action Team recently offered a group of first-year students the opportunity to join a food tour of Daily Table, a new grocer located in Cambridge’s Central Square.

Seventeen students along with staff from Student Financial Services, Office of the First Year, and the Office of Sustainability led the group from the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue a few blocks down the street to Daily Table in Central Square. As part of participating in the program, students were given a $25 TechCash gift card to shop for grocery items during the trip. To make things even more fun, MIT staff created a recipe challenge to encourage students to work together on making their own variation of quesadillas.

Healthy, affordable, sustainable

At Daily Table, students were greeted by Celia Grant, director of community engagement and programs from Daily Table, who led them through a tour of the space and highlighted the history and model of the grocery store, as well as some of its unique features. Founded by former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch in 2015, Daily Table operates three retail stores in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Central Square, and a commissary kitchen in the Boston metro area. Two more stores are in the works: one in Mattapan and another in Salem. For added convenience, Daily Table also offers free grocery delivery within a two-mile radius of its three locations.

The Daily Table’s ethos is that delicious and wholesome food should be available, accessible, and affordable for everyone. To achieve these goals, Daily Table provides a wide selection of fresh produce, nutritious grocery staples, and made-from-scratch prepared grab-n-go foods at affordable prices. “All of our products meet strict nutritional guidelines for sodium and sugar so that customers can make food choices based on their diets, not based on price,” says Grant.

In addition to a large network of farmers, manufacturers, and distributors who supply food to their stores, Daily Table often recovers and rescues perfectly good food that would have otherwise been sent to landfills. Surplus food, packaging and/or label changes, and items with close expiration dates are often discarded by larger grocery stores in the supply chain. But Daily Table steps in to break this cycle of waste and sell these products to customers at a much lower cost. 

The pandemic has uncovered how difficult it can be for individuals and families to budget for necessities like utilities, rent, and even food. Daily Table seeks to create a more sustainable future by providing access to more well-balanced, nutritious food. “Even before the pandemic, it was challenging for families on limited incomes to meet the nutrition needs of their families. Post-pandemic, this challenge has now encompassed even more households, even those that have never before been challenged in this way,” says Grant. “As winter moves through, and inflation increases, the need for more affordable food and nutrition will rise. Daily Table is prepared to help meet those needs, and more.” 

Food resources at MIT

Downstairs at the Daily Table Central Square store, MIT staff members led a discussion about the components of a sustainable food system at MIT and beyond, shared advice on how to budget for food, and offered tips on how to make grocery shopping or cooking fun with fellow classmates and peers. “Shopping at Daily Table provides an experiential case study in solving for multiple goals at once — from the environmental impacts of food waste to healthy eating to affordability — an important framework to consider when tackling climate challenges.” says Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager in the MIT Office of Sustainability.

The group also discussed budgeting expenses, including food. “By taking students to the grocery store and providing some small but meaningful tips, we provided them the opportunity to put their learning into practice!” says Erica Aguiar, associate director for financial education in Student Financial Services. “We saw students taking a closer look at prices and even coming together to share groceries.”

MIT senior and DormCon Dining Chair Ashley Holton shared her grocery shopping strategies with the group, and how she utilizes resources available at MIT. “Having a plan before you enter the grocery store is really important,” says Holton. “Not only does it save time, but it helps you avoid potentially getting more than what your budget allows for, while also making sure you get all the food you’ll need.”

This program, along with many others, is part of MIT’s larger effort on fostering a more food-secure and sustainable campus for all students. Food Security Action Team members, including students, staff, and campus partners, are striving to achieve this goal by ensuring that there continues to be a well-organized and coordinated action around food security that can be implemented effectively each year. For example, to make shopping at Daily Table even easier, MIT has made it a priority to ensure the store accepts TechCash.

No MIT student should go hungry due to lack of money or resources, and no student should feel like they need to be “really hungry” to ask for help. MIT offers several other resources to help students find the nutrition and other support they need. In addition, the Office of Student Wellbeing launched their DoingWell website, which offers programs and resources to help students prioritize their well-being by practicing healthy habits and getting support when they need it.

“In my own cost-analysis comparison of staple grocery items of all the local grocery stores, no other store comes close to being able to offer what Daily Table does for the prices it does. It’s really remarkable to learn and experience just how Daily Table is changing the food system,” says Holton. “Its model is one of the many ways that will continue to foster a more food-secure community where everyone — including MIT students — can access affordable, nutritious food.”

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