Future Forces: Eradicating food deserts

The industry should be proud of what it has done so far to improve access to affordable nutritious food, but there is more work ahead.

By Patrick Kiernan

You might be surprised to learn that the term “food desert” was first used in England in the early ‘70s to describe row-house neighborhoods that lacked the shops, churches, pubs and food stores needed for community life to develop. Today, city governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) describe food deserts as any district or neighborhood with little or no access to the food needed to maintain a healthy diet.

The term has now grown to include both urban and rural populations that suffer “food insecurity” because they lack affordable access to a healthy and adequate diet. Moreover, access is now defined more broadly as “physical access,” with limited shops and poor public transportation; “financial access,” where consumers lack the money to buy healthy foods; and “knowledge access,” where cooking skills and basic food nutrition knowledge are deficient.

The USDA estimates that 15% of U. S. households lack access to an adequate supply of nutritious food. Earlier this year, Detroit unveiled a $1 million Green Grocer Project to shrink the city’s food desert, where 550,000 people are reported to now live.  Likewise, Chicago’s food desert includes more than 600,000 people, mostly in African-American neighborhoods where diet has a direct link to obesity, diabetes and other diseases. In certain areas of our nation’s capital, residents have almost no access to fresh fruits and vegetables beyond onions, potatoes and bananas.

With every major city and many rural counties facing growing food deserts, what can the food industry do?

Walmart recently announced a five-year initiative to help end hunger in America by donating more than one billion pounds of food and grants totaling $250 million. But Walmart’s commitment goes beyond donating food that doesn’t sell.  They include grants for refrigerated trucks to help get fresh fruits, vegetables and meats from their stores to charity programs.

In most U. S. cities, retailers have argued that food is virtually ubiquitous and that we have twice as many food shopping locations compared to just 10 years ago. However in most every urban area, food deserts have emerged where a virtual graveyard of abandoned supermarkets greets the food stamp shopper.

Demographics have played a major role in creating urban food deserts as supermarket chains moved on to growing neighborhoods while closing unprofitable low-income neighborhood stores. Union wages and work rules have also forced the traditional supermarket out of the low income areas to be replaced by fast food locations, limited assortment stores and beer and chip joints. Indeed, a recent visit with a retail CEO revealed his number one problem was how to make money in existing urban “small footprint” stores. Even well-intended activists and city councils have contributed to the declining retail services in low-income neighborhoods by criticizing differential retail pricing zones that reflect the additional costs for security and shrinkage in food deserts.

Now, change is coming from both old and new faces. Many retailers, including Walmart and Safeway, are trying to develop successful small format retail stores and they are even opening new superstores in once abandoned inner-city neighborhoods.  Walgreens and CVS are now re-merchandising drugstores in under-served neighborhoods with expanded food sections, including fresh produce and dairy.

Formats such as Fresh & Easy, Sunflower Farmer’s Market, Aldi and Save-A-Lot continue to look for underserved neighborhoods. Likewise, online retailing continues to expand into grocery items, with CPG-owned sites, Amazon, Alice and still more to come.

We should all be proud to be a part of an industry that continues to give billions of pounds of food each year to food banks and charities. But, we should also become a part of the movement to help low-income neighborhoods purchase healthy, fresh foods without paying higher prices. During these times of high unemployment, we can look to government solutions of welfare incentives and neighborhood revitalization dollars or we can begin to prove the grocery industry can operate smaller fresh formats in underserved neighborhoods.

Risk is built into our “for-profit” capitalism because the rewards of investments always arrive in the future. The responses of shoppers and competitors in the food desert marketplace will play out as we all discover who developed the skills to reinvent grocery shopping in underserved cities and towns.

Patrick Kiernan, managing partner of Day/Kiernan & Associates, is affiliated with The Center for Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s Uni­versity, Philadelphia; the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, Calif.; and Encore Associates, San Ramon, Calif. He can be reached at KiernanPat@aol.com.

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