Recently TRA’s Joe Williams spoke to students of Rice University about a very important topic: Food Deserts. Joe’s been working with grocers across the nation for decades and has seen the impact a proper grocery store can have on a community. He also knows what can happen when fresh, healthy food isn’t readily available. We’ve taken his notes and expanded upon them to give the general public better knowledge of a problem that is a major concern to not only our membership, but the people in the communities they serve.
Let’s start from the beginning; What is a Food Desert? According to the USDA a Food Desert is defined as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
To expand upon that further, according to the US Department of Agriculture the conditions that typically lead to these Food Deserts are as follows:
1/5 of residents in the area live in poverty.
1/3 of residents live far from supermarkets.
RURAL AREAS; 10 miles from supermarket
URBAN AREAS; 1 mile from supermarket
Often times, Food Deserts can also be referred to as “Food Swamps” because not only are these areas without healthy food options, what options are left are highly processed, high sodium, and sugary fast food.
Sadly, another term that goes hand in hand with Food Desert is “Food Insecurity”. Food Insecurity is defined as a lack of access to a sufficient amount of food because of limited funds. Currently it is estimated approximately 49 million people (1 in 8) are considered food insecure and vulnerable to poor health as a result. Research has shown that this lack of access to healthy foods can contribute greatly to health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
Take a moment to think about the area you live in, or your loved ones live in. Where are your healthy options for food? Food Deserts can sometimes be less obvious. Even though your neighborhood may have a corner grocer or even several, that doesn’t mean that they’re meeting the healthy needs of the area. Some corner stores do in fact carry fresh fruits and vegetables, but can hardly compete with large chain store that have much greater leverage and economies of scale to bring a wider of variety of products at lower prices.
According to the Milken Institute “Obesity and excess weight is an expanding health problem for more than 60 percent of Americans, and a new study by Hugh Waters and Ross DeVol finds that it’s a tremendous drain on the U.S. economy as well. The total cost to treat health conditions related to obesity—ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer’s—plus obesity’s drag on attendance and productivity at work exceeds $1.4 trillion annually. That’s more than twice what the U.S. spends on national defense.”
Given the startling statistics listed above, it only makes sense that we as a nation need to start addressing our food problem. But where to begin? Building stores in low-income neighborhoods comes with unique complications; according to the Food Marketing Institute: “A large customer base reliant on food stamps creates erratic cash flows with a rush of business in the beginning of the month when food stamps are issued and slow business at the end of the month.”
And retailers know this to be true: The nation’s top 75 food retailers opened almost 10,300 stores in new locations from 2011-2015. Of those, 2,434 were grocery stores– ONLY 250 were in food deserts. Discount stores make up two-thirds of new stores in food deserts – creating less competition and less incentive to diversify what these stores offer.
Grocery stores are not the bad guys in this scenario. They’re for profit businesses that need to be able to turn a profit in order to pay their employees and keep their doors open. The average supermarket operates on a 1 or 2 percent profit margin and must be sustainable for at least a decade to recoup any profit, so retailers cannot afford to pick unprofitable locations.
But studies show that just introducing healthy food options in low-income food deserts isn’t enough. The National Academy of Science in 2009 found “the supply of healthy food will not suddenly induce people to buy and eat such food over less-healthy options, especially when relative prices of the healthier foods are high.”
In other words, better access to fresh and whole foods alone won’t get rid of poor health outcomes in low-income areas. Instead, residents of low-income areas need a holistic approach that empowers local residents and workers, takes into account small mom-and-pop grocery stores, encourages these businesses to invest in their community, and boosts healthy eating habits for the long run.
Solutions must go beyond the idea of simply building more grocery stores. Because as mention above, profit margins are razor thin and 1 in 5 grocery stores have gone out of business in the last four years in rural areas.
Many experts propose there are five basic solutions to eliminating a Food Desert:
Private Investment: This could mean a grocery store owner selling stock directly to the public to initially fund the cost of opening and operating a grocery store in a food desert.
Public Private Partnership: The USDA supports public and private investments in the form of loans, grants, promotion, and other programs designed to create healthy food options in food deserts across the country. The 2014 Farm Bill authorizes $125 million for HFFI to make nutritious food more accessible, and the President’s most recent budget proposal includes a request of $13 million for this work. The initiative provides financial and technical assistance to eligible fresh, healthy food retailers for the purposes of market planning and promotion efforts, as well as infrastructure and operational improvements designed to stimulate demand among low-income consumers for healthy foods and to increase the availability and accessibility of locally and regionally produced foods in under served areas.
Community Gardens: Also known as “Urban Farming” provide fresh, free food to stressed neighborhoods. According to one study, people who participate in community gardens have a “greater consumption of fresh vegetables compared to non-gardeners, and lower consumption of sweet foods and drinks.”
Mobile or Limited Day Market: These are markets that bring healthy fruits and vegetables into under served communities on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
Local Ordinances: Some cities, in an effort to combat food deserts, have created Retail Incentive Programs which aim to improve access to fresh
foods at corner stores in neighborhoods that are lacking. This distribution policy allocates benefits at no charge to both corner store owners and residents of food deserts. This program provides selected corner stores free technical assistance for store conversions in order to stock fresh foods.
There’s no magic bullet to solving the Food Desert problem. The solution is a mix of what’s listed above and support from the local communities. By becoming aware of this problem and becoming active in your community, you can help fight this issue. No city is without food deserts, and by addressing this problem, it not only helps those who live there directly, but it improves the health of the city as a whole.
You can use this map to find the food desert nearest to you. You might be surprised at how close they are.