You never know what unlikely, ingenious or off-the-wall projects can stem from adaptive reuse, the practice of using an old or disused structure for a purpose other than what it was originally built for. After all, who would have thought so many shuttered Pizza Huts would be reincarnated as check-cashing joints and walk-in health clinics?

While certainly not the wildest example of (proposed) adaptive reuse, a group of students at Washington University in St. Louis certainly have a commendable vision for reviving the multitude of mothballed United States Postal Service facilities scattered across the country.

As reported by the Guardian, roughly 17 percent of USPS locations have closed up shop over the last 40-plus years as consumers have eschewed snail mail for digital communications. Although numerous post offices have been closed or had their hours dramatically slashed by the cash-strapped USPS, the actual delivery infrastructure — that is, those local routes through neighborhoods trafficked by mail carriers — remains intact.

At the same time, food insecurity in underserved urban neighborhoods is on the rise as millions of families, as many as 48 million people in total, continue to live in a state of uncertainty as to when — and from where — their next nutritious meal is coming.

It's in those two seemingly disparate things — forsaken post offices and food insecurity — that a multi-disciplinary student team from Washington University saw an opportunity to enact positive change in a sprawling urban area rife with food deserts: Los Angeles.

Conceived by the trio of Irum Javed, Anu Samarajiva and Lanxi Zhang, the cleverly titled First Class Meal proposal, a proposal that envisions defunct and underused urban post offices being converted into hubs for food storage and sharing, was recently announced as the first-prize winner in the international design competition, Urban SOS: Fair Share. Launched by the Van Alen Institute and engineering firm AECOM in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, the competition challenged students “to combine the concepts of the sharing economy with physical design to propose innovative solutions to critical urban issues.”

“We want to connect underutilized capacity within the postal system — building space, trucks and human capital resources — with the desire for increased reach and food storage capacity within food banks and agencies,” Samarajiva, who is pursing a master’s degree in urban design and architecture at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, explains of the winning proposal to a campus publication, The Source.

Samarajiva goes on to note that First Class Meal “has the potential to reinvigorate the USPS and more strongly define its role as a community resource while strengthening the existing network of community food providers.”

Rendering of First Class Meal delivery scheme First Class Meal proposal taps into existing USPS infrastructure to effectively and efficiently distribute fresh food to those who need it most. (Rendering: First Class Meal)

An emphasis on food distribution, not supply

As Samarajiva and her teammates detail in their proposal, successfully securing actual consumables isn’t necessarily a major roadblock when supplying the denizens of urban food deserts with their next meal. In fact, there’s plenty of food to go around considering that grocery stores, markets and restaurants are almost always looking to offload still-edible surplus food — food that would otherwise be sent to local landfills — to those who need it most.

However, as Samarajiva explains to the Guardian, it’s distributing readily available excess edibles to food insecure recipients that can often prove to be problematic. “The issue isn’t a lack of food or a lack of resources, but of distribution, pickup and logistics," she says.

This is where decommissioned post offices and active mail carriers come in.

As mentioned, First Class Meal envisions dormant or slated-for-closure post offices being repurposed and revived as storage and distribution hubs for ready-to-donate food. Open to both the food insecure public and hunger relief organizations, just think of these facilities as post office-food bank hybrids in which unused post office boxes are converted into “Food Share Boxes."

Who knew that a medium-sized P.O. box can comfortably hold a dozen cans of food or that a large P.O. box can accommodate 60 apples?

Traveling along their established delivery and pick-up routes, postal workers would collect surplus food from suppliers that want to donate excess food. The suppliers, the aforementioned restaurants and supermarkets, would use the existing USPS app to schedule pick-ups.

As noted by the Guardian, USPS vehicles dedicated to food pick-ups and delivery would be refrigerated or equipped with refrigerated bags. Once collected by postal workers, donated food would be routed toward a neighborhood post office-cum-food sharing hub and placed in appropriate Food Share Boxes (goodbye catalogs, hello carrots!) or in other storage/distribution areas. Alternately, the food could also be delivered directly to participating relief organizations.

Rendering of Food Share Boxes, First Class Meal FYI: You can fit 2 pounds of bread into a small P.O. box designed to hold 10-15 letters. (Rendering: First Class Meal)

Conquering food insecurity in the nation's most sprawling food desert

Samarajiva and her colleagues chose to zero in on Los Angeles County not because it necessarily has an abundance of defunct post offices but because the county is the most food-insecure in the nation with roughly 1.5 million people not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

“With urban sprawl, a lot of communities have been left behind,” Iesha Siler of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council tells the Guardian. She goes on to note that repurposing mothballed post offices in food desert-bound neighborhoods seems like a natural fit. “People would like to see those post office spaces be put to use and come back to life, instead of becoming blighted properties.”

As noted by the First Class Meal team, Downtown Los Angeles alone boats over 52,000 square feet of under-utilized post office space. Dedicating just 11 percent of the available post office space to refrigerated food storage could potentially double the existing capacity of refrigerated food storage at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank by 6,000 square feet.

“There are already a lot of organizations in a place like L.A. working on remediating food insecurity,” Samarajiva explains to Smithsonian magazine. “We don’t want to duplicate that work. But we talked to them and realized there are gaps in how they are able to serve people. … The post office infrastructure would be used to fill those gaps.”

And as team member Irum Javed notes, getting mail carriers involved with this urban hunger-combating scheme is, well, a no-brainer, no matter how unlikely it may seem. After all, the National Association of Letter Carriers has been behind the nation’s single largest one-day food drive since 1991 according to the Smithsonian. In 2016, L.A. district USPS workers collected a staggering 1,523,525 pounds of food — the second-highest collection rate of any district in the country. “This isn’t a venture that’s straying away from their current ventures at USPS,” says Javed.

A post office on the fringes of Downtown LA served as a conceptual prototype for First Class Mail's vision of defunct USPS facilities transformed into local distribution centers for surplus food. A post office on the fringes of Downtown LA served as a conceptual prototype for First Class Mail's vision of obsolete USPS facilities transformed into distribution centers for ready-to-donate surplus food. (Map screenshot: Google Maps)

USPS officials in Los Angeles have not signaled to the young design team from Washington University that they intend to move forward with the proposal in any sort of official capacity. This includes, as envisioned by the First Class Meal team, transforming the Market Station post office — a shabby downtown facility with limited hours that's being considered for closure and is located in a Skid Row-abutting area with limited fresh grocery options — into a bustling food-sharing center complete with potato-stuffed PO boxes.

Still, Javed and her colleagues are confident that they’ve captured the attention of a couple of folks who matter, including the city's chief resilience officer and its director of planning, both of whom, coincidentally, served on the jury panel for Urban SOS: Fair Share. The team also has the backing of L.A.-headquartered engineering firm AECOM, which awarded the team with $25,000 (in addition to $7,500 in prize money) to help realize a First Class Meal pilot run.

In total, 80 teams composed of students hailing from 31 different countries submitted proposals to the competition. While First Class Meal focuses on repurposing mothballed buildings and conquering food insecurity amidst the endless urban sprawl of Los Angeles, other top-ranking proposals singled out by the jury offer creative solutions to specific social issues in cities including Durban, South Africa; Athens, Greece; and Quito, Ecuador.

"Cities today face opportunities and challenges that require holistic, interdisciplinary solutions,” David van der Leer, executive director of Van Alen Institute, says in a press statement. “We were proud to guide some of tomorrow’s thought leaders to imagine such creative visions for the future of urban life and public space.”

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

First Class Meal enlists postal workers to help stamp out food insecurity
Prize-winning design proposal revives defunct post offices by transforming them into food-sharing centers.