Dinner in South Los Angeles

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Tarelle Butts, Evan Pierre, Edwin Rodriguez

South Los Angeles is a food desert with limited access to fresh, healthy, foods. Limited access, affordability, and knowledge lead to unfair poor health outcomes. Life expectancy differs by more than 20 years for people living just 5 miles apart.

Purpose of Project
The American Heart Association asks: What are the barriers to accessing “healthy meals?”

My Role
User Researcher, Participant Recruiter, Interview Participants

Project Duration
August 2017 - December 2017


  • We researched what the official definition of a healthy meal is
  • We went and spoke with residents of two different South Los Angeles communities
  • Recruited and paid participants to keep a photo journal of their meals for 1 week without telling them why
  • Interviewed participants after completing their photo journals about their meal decisions

Challenge and Question

Challenge and Question

Phase 1/5:


 We began our research by creating an Affinity Map about what questions we wanted answered. We decided to focus on learning what the official definition of a "healthy meal" is, how residents of South Los Angeles defined a healthy meal.

Brainstorming and Affinity Mapping

Brainstorming and Affinity Mapping

Brainstorming and Affinity Mapping 

Brainstorming and Affinity Mapping 

Field Research

Field Research

What is a Healthy Meal

Research Questions

Official Definition: USDA MyPlate

We researched what the official definition of a healthy meal is and found United States Department of Agriculture's Myplate. This is the most up to date version from the US Government, it replaces the food pyramid which is what many older people were taught.

We decided to use this definition in our project as a benchmark of a healthy meal because despite the recommendations being specific, it’s designed to be used as a simple rule of thumb.


Moving Towards Primary Research

Map of South Los Angeles

Map of South Los Angeles


As we moved toward primary research we knew that we wanted to Understand how decision makers who control what is purchased, cooked, and eaten think and talk about “healthy meals”.

To get a diverse range of perspectives we visited two different communities, Crenshaw and Central Alameda. The Crenshaw community is predominately African American and Central Alameda is predominately Hispanic.


insights From Field Research

Juana, A Central Alameda Resident

Juana, A Central Alameda Resident

Bruce, A Crenshaw Resident

Bruce, A Crenshaw Resident

Lorrena, Central Alameda Resident

Lorrena, Central Alameda Resident

PHase 2/5:
define the problem

People Are Buying Vegetables, But Preparing Them In Unhealthy Ways

Key Insights


This really stood out to us. In our interview we had been asking people about grocery lists and also considered asking them to photograph their refrigerators. But we realized that what you buy doesn’t matter if at the end of the day you end up frying your vegetables or putting heavy cream on your fruit. We needed to know what exactly is on their plates.



make a comparison

We wanted to make a comparison between the official definition of a healthy meal, how residents define a healthy meal, and what they are actually eating.

Research Patterns

What Are Residents Actually Eating

Make a Comparison

Phase 3/5:


We needed to know what residents are actually eating. To do this, we decided to recruit residents of South Los Angeles and ask them to do a photo journal of their dinner for 1 week and follow up with an interview after the photo journal was complete. We made a conscious decision to not tell the participants what the photos would be used for. We wanted to keep their documentation as pure as possible and not let them know we would be analyzing their photos for healthy and unhealthy dinner choices. 

Photo Journal and Interviews

Why Dinner


We focused on dinner because research suggests it’s the meal where people consume the most vegetables which was a food group we wanted to look into. We also assumed dinner was least likely to be skipped and would be easiest to photograph for participants.


Meet our Participants


Jeremy's Photo Journal


Jeremy Insights

Jeremy told us that he doesn’t cook and eats most of his meals at home. He also told us that you should avoid bad foods heavy in starch sodium and sugars. Despite what he said, about 85% of his dinners were takeout. And those takeout meals from their appearance seem to be heavy in sodium and sugar. We talked to him about it and he told us that he was tired and it was convenient to buy fast food. He also mentioned that he knows Jack isn't the healthiest, but it’s just what he wanted that day.



Justin's Photo Journal


Justin Insights

Justin, a pescatarian, told us that veggies are essential for him because he doesn’t eat meat. He also mentioned that he considers about 90% of his meals to be healthy. When Justin shared his photos with us, we saw that only about 37% of his dinners contained vegetables and that few of them met MyPlate guidelines for a balanced meal. We talked about it, and he said that sometimes he just kind of forgets to make vegetables, and that life is moving really fast for him. Justin added that sometimes vegetables are something that he can’t make quickly so it just doesn’t happen.



Harry's Photo Journal


Harry Insights

Lastly we talked to Harry, he’s newly vegetarian and said he’s been trying to cut back on meat and eats mostly vegetables now. He doesn’t follow recipes, but does get ideas about what to eat from google, youtube, and how his body is feeling. When cooking, Harry doesn’t really follow recipes and kind of throws it in a pot with salt, pepper, butter, and olive oil. We noticed that only about 33% percent of his dinners contain some protein. This coupled with following his intuition to cook over recipes made us wonder if he was missing some nutritional needs. We talked about it and he told us that his girlfriend does say that he’s getting too skinny and needs to bulk up soon. 


Phase 4/5:

Personalized Feedback About Meals

If recipes won’t be helpful, and people are going to eat out anyways, how could we support them making better choices around mealtime? We realized that we had these photos, and we had access to a nutritionist who had helped us analyze the photos. Could personalized feedback about people’s meals help them reflect on and improve their habits?


Our Concept

Feedback About Your Meals

Our Prototype

This materialized as the concept of Text Message Food Feedback. It’s a simple service with a great name, Here’s how it works.

Text Message Food Feedback

Share Meals

Get Feedback About Your Meal

Meet our Nutritionist

Before doing this we consulted more with our nutritionist, Tanya, who has one year before she will be a fully registered dietician. She gave us some really helpful guidance, like the fact that we cannot give medical advice in any way, and that also there are limits to what you can tell about a person's diet by only having photos of their dinner. As an RD she would use other methods about their food. She did say that if we did give feedback, it would need to be general and point people to official resources that they can read on their own.

Our Nutritionist

Phase 5/5:

Text Feedback Discussion

Prototype Conversation

To test our prototype, we showed Tanya the photo journals of each participant. Tanya made observations and gave feedback specific to each participant's eating habits. Tanya mentioned "USDA MyPlate has a helpful guide to help choose things to eat when away from home," along with a PDF linking to the official recommendation. Within the conversation handy rules of thumb were included, like always try filling half your plate with fruits or vegetables. This is something that also came from official guidelines.


Quotes From Participants

Feedback From Prototype Testing

We got positive responses to the feedback. Jeremy felt he could use these resources to position himself to greater health in the future, and justin said the information you provided was amazing and will definitely be taking all of the advice given.


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It is encouraging to get positive feedback on the first try. We see a lot of benefits in a service like this. Free on demand easy access to professional feedback can be useful whether you are cooking at home or eating out, especially if it’s personalized. Also the act of taking photos of your food for a week can spark self reflection about what you are eating. 

This service could potentially be anonymous, which might encourage them to ask more honest questions than they would otherwise.There are also potential benefit to the American Heart Association. It’s another form of direct support for their mission. If people agree to share their data the American Heart Association could see photos and learn what people are eating and what kinds of questions they are asking in a specific geographic area.


Unanswered Questions

Recruiting Can Be Difficult

Factors Impacting Health

There is a question of access, whether that is because of income or availability. What is the population's general idea of a healthy meal? Where did those ideas come from? We focused on knowledge and awareness


Recapping The Concept

How Might We