Solving the nation's "food desert" problem yields unexpected results
In the well-lighted aisles of Vicente’s Tropical Grocery, the store’s promise – “where you feel at home” – doesn’t seem out of place. There are the staples of suburban shopping: Kool-Aid Jammers, Wesson oil. It’s only along the outer walls that, to the typical American shopper, things might look a bit odd.
Instead of meatloaf and mac ’n’ cheese, the in-store cafeteria serves griot pork and Djon Djon rice – Haitian specialties. Under the sign “Wall of Values,” are enough 20- to 25-pound bags of rice to serve an army. And in the meat department, there are many, many turkey necks and other unusual cuts of meat.
Near the pork chops are packages with cubes of blackened meat labeled “Burnt Goat.”
Yet this is exactly what Brockton, Massachusetts, needed when the supermarket opened its doors in 2015. Serving a varied community of largely low-income whites, Cape Verdeans, Hispanics and Haitians, the store has revitalized an abandoned city block and brought fruits, vegetables and other fresh food to an area where they were not readily available. It’s part of a national trend.
Grocery Stores Prosper While Traditional Chains Suffer
Sears, Macy’s and other traditional chains are closing hundreds of stores this year in what some are calling a “retail apocalypse." However, grocery chains are opening new outlets. And the fastest growth is happening, not in wealthy suburbia, but in low-income neighborhoods where access to fresh food is often limited.
All over the U.S., partnerships of risk-taking business people and public officials are solving the nation’s “food desert” problem.
The results, however, are not quite what everyone expected. As researchers began to link being overweight with a lack of access to fresh food, the opening of nearby groceries was supposed to lead to weight loss. It didn’t turn out that way, which is forcing public officials and business leaders to shift the way they approach the problem of healthy communities.
“I don’t call them food deserts; I call them resource deserts, because it's not just fresh food. These communities need everything," says Lauren Vague, of UpLift Solutions, a nonprofit group in Westville, New Jersey, that aims to strengthen such communities. They need an employer to create jobs. They need an anchor to draw shoppers so that the local business district can grow, she adds. Sometimes, it’s as basic as having a building large enough so the community can meet.
“We're absolutely in the process of solving this problem,” she says, adding, “It's OK that it's complicated.”
Low-Income Neighborhoods And Food Deserts On The Rise
Despite the progress, food deserts are on the rise, based on U.S. Census numbers. In 2010, there were 8,959 food deserts, the low-income neighborhoods where a significant portion of the population was more than a mile from a large grocery store or supermarket, or more than 10 miles in rural areas. By 2015, there were 9,245 low-income, low-access census neighborhoods, a 3 percent increase, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The increase has more to do with the rise in low-income neighborhoods, a delayed effect of the Great Recession, than the closing of supermarkets, says Michele Ver Ploeg. She is an economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service. In fact, the number of grocery stores in low-income census neighborhoods went up 17 percent during that period, although part of that growth occurred because of the rise in the number of low-income places.
For owners, opening a store in a food desert involves big risks.
“We were putting everything on the line,” recalls Jason Barbosa, president of Vicente’s, on the family’s decision to open the supermarket in 2015, in a neighborhood that had become “just scary.” Yet the new store was profitable within a year.
Grocery Giants Are Moving In
Local leaders are not the only ones moving into food deserts. In Birmingham, Alabama, a Publix is slated to go in where a steel mill used to be, and Whole Foods, through its foundation, is experimenting with stores in other food desert areas.
Being successful in food deserts can hinge on listening to customers, Barbosa says. Vicente’s, for example, descales its seafood at the point of purchase because that’s what customers said they wanted.
“I'm picky,” says Rose Ducaste, who waits 15 minutes while a Vicente’s staffer prepares her $45 cut of salmon just to her liking. “I thought he would give me attitude, but he was very patient.”
But the real reason she drives from another Boston suburb to shop here is the prices. “I spend half (here) what I spend over there.”
Location Doesn't Actually Have Much To Do With It
That's a key point that researchers have discovered as supermarkets have moved into food deserts. Consumers drive to a particular grocery store because of good deals, personal service or some other preference, not because it’s the closest location. And because many poor people have cars, the traditional definition of city food deserts may not be the most useful one, says Ver Ploeg. The people with no car who really need to walk to a nearby grocery, no more than half a mile away, probably amount to only 4 percent of the U.S. population, she says.
There’s another twist researchers are discovering. Just because a grocery moves in doesn't mean that people's eating habits change. A 2014 study of a Philadelphia food desert found no change in eating patterns or weight loss after a supermarket moved in.
Building a new supermarket may not convince convenience-store shoppers to come. Behavioral changes require training people how to cook with fresh food and to use it before it goes bad – programs that UpLift and other groups use as part of their efforts to help with food deserts.
This lack of healthy results doesn’t faze John Wood, the assistant city manager of Kansas City, Missouri, who is leading the city’s efforts to revitalize the Linwood Shopping Center with a new supermarket. The economic benefits of bringing in supermarkets can improve health in other ways.
Health Isn't Just About Food
“For the people who like their Hostess cupcakes, the grocery store just represents another place to get a Hostess cupcake,” he says. But “it’s not so much just the food. It’s the living environment people are in. It’s the vacant lots and illegal dumping. That's where unhealthiness comes into play.”
Wood saw it firsthand when the St. Joseph Hospital, which provided neighborhood jobs and anchored the area, moved away and the building was demolished. The Linwood Shopping Center, once a flourishing center for black-owned businesses, withered away. In the mid-1980s, a grocery store and shopping center prospered for a while and then fizzled.
Now, hopes are rising again. Late last month, the shopping center held a ground-breaking for a new Sun Fresh Market, which will be run by a local Kansas City family that owns other grocery stores.