Sounding Board: A nagging problem

It’s time to address the embarrassing issue of food deserts.

By Len Lewis

There are just some issues in the supermarket industry that won’t go away—nor should they. No, it’s not the economy, credit card fees, unions, or price wars. It’s that persistently stubborn and somewhat embarrassing 800-pound gorilla called “food deserts.”

From time to time, well-meaning, and sometimes self-serving, people from various groups invoke the phrase in an effort to get a rise out of the public. It’s also a good issue for members of Congressional sub-committees looking for a safe place to hang their election hats. Too often, it gets neatly tucked away in a corner until the next time it’s needed.

But not this time. We may be on the cusp of a popular revolution that will no longer tolerate the fact that 6% of people in the U.S. can’t get the food they want within a reasonable distance of where they live. Or, that there are cities and towns across America that haven’t had a decent grocery in decades, but have no trouble attracting fast food joints and liquor stores.

I applaud First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” child obesity program for getting the ball rolling again. The administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative and programs such as Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative on which it was based, are a beginning. But programs are being formulated elsewhere as well.

One project comes from the highly respected Rand Corp. This consists of a  $2.7 million, five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health to determine how a full-service grocery store will influence the health of residents. The crux of this study is a Shop ‘n Save supermarket, part of an independent group, that is scheduled to open a new store in 2011 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. This neighborhood, home to about 17,000 people, has reportedly not had a full-service supermarket in 30 years.

This landmark study will be the first to examine how changing the environment of a neighborhood affects the overall health of its residents. This is no photo op for local bureaucrats. This is a real attempt to talk to residents about their buying and eating habits before and after the store is built—a real first in quantifying the relationship between health and local access to good, reasonably priced foods. It may also broaden the discussion of who can operate most effectively and efficiently in these areas—chains or independents.

But with all due deference to the Rand Corp., I would hate to see an urgent issue like food deserts get bogged down in five years of mental masturbation.

Who can deny the relationship between health and access to healthier foods? Who out there doesn’t think a supermarket isn’t going to service the people of a community better than a “corner store” whose merchandising centers around candy, snacks, cigarettes and the occasional head of wilted lettuce. The idea that “you are what you eat” can be traced back to the 17th century. Odd that we still have to debate this issue.

We need shorter-term answers and that means uncomplicating the issue by convincing activist groups, local officials and others that you don’t need a 100,000 square foot Walmart to adequately serve an underserved community. Even Walmart knows that.

I was recently traveling in Mexico and in a town rife with corner stores (bodegas to all you New Yorkers) I stopped into a supermarket that was maybe 4,000 square feet. But inside was a pharmacy, fresh produce, a scratch bakery, service deli, meat department, dry grocery and two checkouts buzzing with activity.

In California, Tesco’s Fresh & Easy opened a store in South Los Angeles, which, depending on developments could be the model for other oases in the country’s food deserts from L.A. to Chicago to New Jersey. And while Fresh & Easy is a chain, the size of the store might prove that a strong independent is just as good as a mega-chain—and a lot easier to get.

I don’t want to oversimplify. I know how difficult a process opening a store can be given the cost of land, zoning regulations not to mention a myriad of financial issues associated with opening in lower-income areas.

It can be done but we need a true local partnership between the supermarket industry, state and local governments and consumer groups to acknowledge the issues and come up with solutions for the good of everyone.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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