In 2014, a white paper by the United States Postal Service’s Inspector General contemplated the future of the crumbling USPS system, toying with the idea of reinventing its declining infrastructure “to provide innovative services that would yield new revenue.” Total mail volume is down, and so is employment and revenue. Out of 30,000 USPS branches across the country, 17 percent have shuttered offices since 1971. But while you can most certainly repurpose a USPS box for extra paper storage, repurposing an entire USPS storage facility, on the other hand, is not as easy.
Last year, the city of Clearwater, Florida, debated turning its historic post office into some kind of entertainment space such as a restaurant, before the landmark building ended up on a closure list. But the latest effort to transform the USPS system comes from a group of students at Washington University, St. Louis, who propose using the existing infrastructure to serve the needs of food-insecure populations in Los Angeles.
The First Class Meal proposal won first prize at the Urban SOS: Fair Share—a competition that challenged students to find solutions to cities’ most pressing issues—led by AECOM and Van Alen Institute. The proposal, developed by students Anu Samarajiva, Irum Javed, and Lanxi Zhang, hopes to solve two problems at once by reinvigorating USPS services in decline to better solve Los Angeles’s growing food insecurity problem. An estimated 1.4 million people in Los Angeles County struggle with food insecurity and account for around 16 percent of the population—the highest share of food-insecure residents in the country.
The problem lies in storage and distribution. “There’s a disconnect,” says L.A. Food Policy Council’s Iesha Siler. “Nonprofits trying to tackle food insecurity don’t have a shortage of food—but it’s not in their business model to have trucks go pick up tons of food waste and then distribute it.”
After speaking with numerous hunger-relief agencies and food banks in Los Angeles, two major issues stood out to the students. “It came down to lack of warehousing space and storage and not having vehicles or volunteers to transport the food to the people who need it,” says Anu Samarajiva, a graduate student on the winning team who is studying architecture and urban design. Most people who are food insecure are also located in low-income areas, further burdened by food deserts, which makes transportation of goods all the more important.
The team’s proposal relies on postal service trucks picking up food donations from agencies, individuals, and grocery stores along their regular routes. Then, the trucks would either deliver the free food to specified households or take it back to the post office for later pick up. Underused postal facilities would be turned into food pantries where people can pick up goods, with select locations having “food-share walls”—refrigerated storage cubbies that can be transferred to similar walls inside the trucks. Additionally, users could schedule and track deliveries via the USPS app, says student Irum Javed, another member of the winning team. The team is currently in talks with the city of Los Angeles and the USPS. The team hopes to use their prize money of $25,000 to figure out an implementation strategy and ongoing funding model.
A model like First Class Meal tries to connect the dots, says James Johnson-Piette, CEO of the community sustainability venture Urbane Development. While he’s cautious about the costs of activating these USPS spaces—particularly the cost involved to refrigerate fleets of trucks—he says the idea has immense potential. “What’s the alternative? Building new infrastructure? Either way, the costs need to be measured and understood.”
One way for cities to push forward in urban planning and design, says the AECOM senior vice president Stephen Engblom, “is to start thinking and acting like a startup.” The country’s dwindling post offices then, could be the location of the next food-security startup. “All public spaces have life cycles,” says Johnson-Piette. “After that, we’ve got to find new ways to get the most out of them.”