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Food Deserts: The Gaps and Progress Made to Close Them

Editor’s Note: 84.51° employees partner with students from Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) to mentor, research and write a series of blog posts for 8451.com. The authors are members of student-led group, East Bridge Consultancy, an affiliate of Alpha Kappa Psi, a professional business fraternity. This is the sixth of six articles in the series.

Food Deserts: The Gaps and Progress Made to Close Them
By: Corey Riggenbach & Bradley Warner

In the United States, more than 29 million people live in a food desert—an area that lacks access to affordable fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful, whole foods. Despite their best efforts, supermarkets and food retailers in America have struggled to solve the food desert dilemma that continues to impact many across the country. To better understand the issue, it’s important to investigate the causes and spotlight recent developments that may help to mend the many affected communities, particularly within three core gaps—the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and education about the benefits of healthier food options.

Three Gaps in Food Deserts

1. Availability: Mari Gallagher, founder of Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, has studied food deserts across the country and says availability is the foundation for solving the problem. “All the knowledge and willpower in the world won’t allow food-desert residents to choose healthy food unless they also have access,” said Gallagher. Several attempts have been made to provide healthier products to individuals who reside in food deserts. For example, Kroger launched a chain of no-frills stores to place in food deserts, leveraging low costs to help close the consumer gap. While the project has helped impact many areas, Kroger admits that making the project profitable has been difficult. Additionally, without a broader community focus on both affordability and education, retail expansion can only have a limited impact – providing access is only one part of the solution.

2. Affordability: One defining characteristic of food deserts is that they most frequently occur in low-income communities in which price, taste and convenience are key drivers in consumer food choices. With these decision criteria, healthier food options rank low due to their high price, preparation time and lack of sugar, which is often indicative of less flavor. As a result, the affordability dilemma fosters a cyclical and self-imposed barrier—shoppers in food deserts can only afford lower-priced items, and in these food deserts, healthy items don’t have the mass demand that allows for price reductions.

Some government programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have attempted to disrupt the cycle. More than 45 million Americans received funds from SNAP in 2015 with the average family receiving $127 per month. While the program has made food more affordable for lower-income shoppers, it has not been successful in eliminating food deserts. Instead, as these shoppers try to stretch their budget to meet immediate household needs, the $127 from SNAP tends to be allocated across an assortment of family products that rarely include nutritious foods. Without more targeted intervention, affordability concerns will continue to entrench food deserts across the country.

3. Education: The education challenge stems from two areas. First, many consumers are unaware of the long-term harmful effects of an unhealthy diet. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, “empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40 percent of total daily calories for two to 18 year olds.” For many, these bad habits become engrained behaviors, contributing to the nation-wide obesity rate and long-term heart problems. Second, shoppers lack the culinary skills to prepare healthy food at home. According to the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences, enrollment in family and consumer sciences classes continues to decline.

Overall, there is declining interest in home food preparation, which can compound the affordability and availability challenges due to decreased demand. By providing education around food preparation, shoppers can become better equipped to adopt a healthier lifestyle—they gain awareness of the importance of a healthy diet and become empowered to prepare food accordingly. Without proper education, the benefits of enhanced affordability and availability would be largely inhibited by consumers uninterested in changing their lifestyles. Fortunately, several emerging initiatives are starting to tackle each of these problems, ultimately to help eliminate food deserts.

Progress: The Fight to Eliminate Food Deserts

  • Government Focus: The Let’s Move! campaign, headed by Michelle Obama, focuses on eradicating childhood obesity in the United States, emphasizing not only exercise, but the elimination of food deserts by solving the affordability, accessibility and education issues. Armed with a $400 million per year budget, the campaign has worked vigorously to reach as many consumers as possible.
  • Direct to Home Delivery/Central Hub Pickup: FreshDirect recently launched an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) pilot program, which allows customers with SNAP benefits to have fresh food delivered to their doorsteps. Couple this with innovations like Amazon’s drop stations, and there is a clear digital trend which could open possibilities for even the most remote markets.
  • Corporate Responsibility/Clean Labels: In recent years, there has been a huge effort on the part of food manufacturers to help eradicate food deserts. Companies like Campbell’s and others have eliminated artificial ingredients and additives to their products. Simplifying the ingredient lists and changing the types of products these corporations sell marks a significant shift in the market aimed at improving consumer health.

Hope for the Future
The existence of food deserts is a vastly complex issue, and to properly combat it, there’s need for comprehensive change from several stakeholders. The challenges we face are interwoven, and to tackle only a fraction of the symptoms will only limit true progress. But, while there is need for great change, there is also much reason for hope. Not only has the Let’s Move! campaign brought significant public attention to the issue of food deserts, there have also been significant developments in the food industry that show promise for helping underserved communities. No one entity can solve the issue entirely, but governments, CPG manufacturers, and retailers must continue to serve the unmet needs of the many households struggling to foster a healthy lifestyle.

Read the other articles in this series: Millennials & Urban Retailers: What Drives a Successful Relationship; Meal Subscription Services Battle for Share of Stomach; Three Strategies for Brick and Mortar Retailers to Remain Relevant in an Ever-Changing Landscape; Loyalty Programs: The Two Must-Haves; How Retailers Can Take Advantage of Food Trends on Social Media