At her job, Chavely Noval handles a lot of family trauma. One of the biggest traumas she witnesses is a lack of access to healthy food.
“Not having food creates stress, which leads to high tensions, leading into assault, and then hospitalization,” said Noval, who is a family liaison at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for its Violence Prevention Program and a 2017 psychology alumna. “Not having healthy food, or not having food at all, is traumatic. It’s just so sad.”
In some parts of North Philadelphia, residents have to travel nearly a mile to reach the closest grocery store, making it difficult to buy fresh produce. Nearby neighborhood corner stores have replaced grocery stores for some.
These neighborhoods are often considered food deserts: areas with a lack of access to fresh food, like fruits and vegetables.
Aasit Nanavati is trying to find a solution to this problem.
Nanavati, a 2012 master’s of epidemiology and biostatistics alumnus, co-founded WeGardn in April — a nonprofit that provides fresh produce and nutrition education to Philadelphians at affordable prices.
With the help of New Jersey farmers and Pennsylvania dairy producers, customers can receive fresh produce while supporting sustainable practices. Nanavati hopes to help alleviate urban food deserts and food waste.
“Fresh food is a luxury,” Nanavati said. “Everyone does not have access to the best quality produce.”
Using a farm-to-table model, WeGardn allows the customer to shop from home. Through WeGardn’s website or app, customers can shop for the produce of their choice and set a date for delivery.
WeGardn currently sells vegetables, like sweet potatoes and collard greens, and fruits, like grapefruit and apples. It also offers protein like frozen chicken breasts and eggs, as well as nonperishables, dairy, coffee and tea.
“We want to create a model of social impact and sustainability in Philadelphia,” said Nanavati, who is also a 2009 public health alumnus.
A 2009 review of census data by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that 23.5 million people live in low-income neighborhoods where the nearest supermarket is more than a mile from their home.
This lack of supermarkets and the reliance on corner stores have impacted people’s health in low-income parts of the city, according to The Food Trust, a nonprofit that makes affordable, healthy food more accessible in the U.S.
“From a public health standpoint, having easy access to fruits and vegetables is certainly preferable,” said Sarah Bauerle Bass, a public health professor. “For many people who live in urban settings, especially a place like Philadelphia, fresh fruits and vegetables are a subway ride, a bus ride [or] a taxi ride to get to.”
“Most of the bodegas or corner stores that might be in their actual neighborhoods either don’t have fruits or vegetables or if they do there are very few choices,” she added. “They’re not giving people a wide variety of choices, especially greens, or produce that doesn’t stay fresh for a long period of time.”
Throughout the last several years, Nanavati has worked for health nonprofits in countries like India, Uganda and Costa Rica. After living abroad for several years, he said he saw a nutritional gap in the U.S. compared to places like India. He felt the produce in India was fresher than produce sold in U.S. grocery stores.
In 2015, Nanavati was conducting sexual health research in New Delhi with Global Health Strategies, an advocacy organization that wants to improve health worldwide. While there, he noticed the difference between Indian and American produce.
This prompted his interest in creating an easier method to access healthy food in Philadelphia.
Upon returning to Philadelphia in 2017, Nanavati began working on the startup, along with Greg Donworth, a 2016 Drexel University mechanical engineering alumnus.
Nanavati and Donworth met at a phone charging station at the 2016 Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston. They began talking about their backgrounds and interests on sustainability, which led to a meeting where they came up with the WeGardn concept.
With his education in statistics and public health, Nanavati wanted to find an economically and environmentally sustainable way to serve people in low-income communities who do not have the means to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
Nanavati said there are challenges to running a brand new nonprofit and educating the public on how they can help.
“It’s a challenge converting someone from just, ‘It’s great idea’ to an actual customer,” Nanavati said. “We’re looking forward to more mentorship and fundraising.”
Noval added that she plans to add WeGardn to her resource list for clients.
“Living with limited and/or overpriced healthy food choices should not be an issue in low-income neighborhoods,” Noval said. “It’s so upsetting that healthy food options are only available in medium-to-high income neighborhoods that are gentrified.”
The nonprofit is currently piloting a last-mile delivery program, which is an environmentally conscious method that utilizes various transportation modes, like bicycle and car share programs.
“I wanted to connect the dots to use technology and innovation to help people and give them the opportunity to access health care and to live a better life,” Nanavati said.