High-Tech Take-Out

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In August, Age Wave, the Emeryville, California, company that targets the needs of senior citizens, introduced its latest venture, LifeSource Nutrition Solutions. The start-up was funded in part by $10 million from St. Louis-based Monsanto Company. LifeSource manufactures, prepares, and home-delivers meals and snacks that are custom-fortified with the nutrients determined by the company's scientific panel to address common conditions, such as congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and diabetes.

Age Wave is test marketing LifeSource in the San Francisco Bay Area through direct mail, direct response advertising, and public relations. It plans to do business with 1.75 percent of the estimated 570, 000 people over 50 in the Bay Area with either diabetes or heart conditions. The company aims to take operations nationwide in the next four to seven years.

The concept of LifeSource is something like that of Total cereal. Nutrients are added directly to the food before it is prepared. Of course, LifeSource is a little more ambitious. It includes macronutrients like fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in addition to the vitamins and minerals you'd get in a bowl of Total. And General Mills doesn't make a special Total specifically formulated for people with diabetes or heart disease.

This isn't to say that LifeSource is out to cure chronic illness with fortified take-out. "We don't have any silver bullets and we're not treating, curing, or mitigating these ailments with our offerings," says John Hale, chief operating officer of Age Wave. The company's mission is simply to integrate the cutting edge of nutritional research with good-tasting food, and deliver it to people who either can't or don't want to cook for themselves.

If that sounds a little like Meals on Wheels, it is. After all, every Meals on Wheels menu is created under the supervision of a registered dietitian to make sure nutritional needs are met. They even offer low-fat, low-sodium, and diabetic meals. Still, nothing on a Meals on Wheels menu is nutritionally fortified. Then again, there is some debate as to whether fortifying food is necessary. Jean Lloyd, staff nutritionist for the U.S. Administration on Aging, calls LifeSource "a product that a person could get by simply going out and buying a bottle of vitamin and mineral tablets," but concedes that it's "a way for people to feel comfortable they're getting the nutrients they need."

Another difference is taste. Roast beef with red potatoes-a typical dinner from Meals on Wheels Greater San Diego-may stick to your ribs, but it may not make your taste buds dance like LifeSource's Creole cod, rice and red chile beans, and an orange mango smoothie on the side. The LifeSource menu consistently runs a couple degrees flashier than its nonprofit counterpart. Then again, Meals on Wheels isn't in business to dazzle. Its mission is to deliver prepared food to homebound people. According to Jean Lloyd, more than 90 percent of the nation's Meals on Wheels programs are federally funded: the average cost is $5.31; the average amount paid by the client is only $1.25.

These aren't the people who will purchase LifeSource. At $5.50 per entree, $2.50 for soup, and $1.75 for a smoothie, LifeSource will appeal to more affluent seniors-and by no means are they a minority. According to 1997 Census Bureau figures, the 72 million men and women over 50 represent only 27 percent of the population, yet they control 70 percent of the total net worth of U.S. households-nearly $9 trillion. Age Wave is betting their target consumers-what founder and president Ken Dychtwald calls "the most affluent and active consumers in the history of the American marketplace"-will be willing and able to pay a premium price for premium eats and nutrition.

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