Finding Food Desert Solutions: Are Supermarkets the Answer?

Detroit recently made headlines for its notoriously poor supply of fresh produce to urban dwellers, though this city ranks among at least a half dozen others that have had to tackle the emergence of ‘food deserts,’ or neighborhoods with little or no supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Earlier this summer the USDA released its report on the health consequences of food deserts, Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food – Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, which reviewed the evidence for expanding the supply of fresh produce in communities where fast food and corner store snacks are the norm. They found a clear relationship between the local food supply and the food choices that consumers make. Many health advocates believe that food deserts have contributed to the obesity epidemic, the rise in individuals with diabetes, and many other health problems associated with a nutritionally deficient diet.

In response to these issues, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America has recommended that public health programs make access to “full service grocery stores” in communities (urban and rural) that have long relied on fast food or convenience stores for their food supply. They cite Detroit as an example of just how bad it can get (5 grocery stores in 139 square miles). The assumption is that large grocery chains must penetrate these markets in order to provide a constant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables to the community, so that citizens have the ability to choose healthier foods.

John Weidman, Deputy Executive Director of The Food Trust, was quoted in the Equity Blog as saying,

“Improving access to grocery stores in both urban and rural communities must be part of our national strategy to improve children’s health and prevent obesity and diabetes. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative has demonstrated that supermarkets can thrive in food deserts and offers a strong model for solving this problem nationally.” (emphasis added)

While this recommendation is well intentioned, how national execution of an Initiative focused on expanding supermarket access may affect local farmers and community producers is unknown. Will supermarkets partner with local farmers and distribute their bounty or drive them out of business? To be clear, the PFFFI was not just about increasing supermarket access, although that was a primary component of the activities. Furthermore, community organizations, like HABESHA Gardens in Atlanta, Georgia, have filled some of the gaps left by fleeing supermarkets by teaching residents of all ages how to manage and maintain community or personal gardens. For the youth involved, eating their vegetables is no longer a chore, but an achievement. I even heard a few declaring their love of beets (well…beet cake) on national TV!

It is imperative that local farmers be key stakeholders and partners in promoting access to fresh produce through these public-private supermarket expansion programs.  As the Food Trust has shown, not only supermarket grocers, but farmer’s markets and corner store campaigns can also make a difference in many of these communities. Wegman’s, a national grocery store chain, has demonstrated that partnerships with local farmers can be palatable to the public and profitable. I was thrilled to see my local Bechdolt Orchard’s peaches at Wegman’s the last time I visited Pennsylvania. Local farmers have a great opportunity to step into the urban landscape, whether they are located in Philadelphia or Detroit.

If increasing access to fresh produce is the first step to providing communities with the tools to choose healthy, nutritious meals for their families, then community leaders still have a large task ahead of them. Once the goods are there, we will have to figure out how to change attitudes and behaviors in order to make the best use of them. Only then will fresh food access be translated into pounds lost, days gained, and many of aspects of healthy living that are too often taken for granted.

2 thoughts on “Finding Food Desert Solutions: Are Supermarkets the Answer?

  1. I think that providing community garden and teaching people to grow their own fresh food is one of the best things they could do. They could also offer canning/preservation classes. If you teach someone to grow food for him/herself you not only provide fresh healthy food to them but also a sense of worth, value and freedom. Grocery stores are not the answer because 90% of what they offer is not any healthier than fast food.

  2. Great post. The following doesn’t address the attitude/behavior component, but want to note that Michigan just started a terrific pilot program to get more produce into Detroit neighborhoods that have low access, and are utilizing locally produced crops. “MI Neighborhood Food Movers” are like ice-cream trucks, but with fruit and veggies. It’s a swell idea: http://tinyurl.com/luymyw