2012 Food Desert Battle Aims to Build on Historic Progress

2012 Food Desert Battle Aims to Build on Historic Progress

It would be hard to find a cause that’s gained more momentum in the past year than eradicating food deserts that plague underserved U.S. communities.

• Retailers including Wal-Mart Stores, Walgreen Co. and Supervalu have committed to launching or expanding waves of stores in underserved areas, and a number of independent retailers are also making big efforts.

• The White House has helped support initiatives through First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America.

• The California Freshworks Fund was created to support retailer food desert initiatives in that state.

• New research shows the number of people living in food deserts in Chicago declined almost 40% in the past five years, according to a report from Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, which indicates notable progress in a major American city.

• The federal government is making new strides to enhance the SNAP (food stamp) program by rooting out fraud, considered relatively minimal but still worthy of more aggressive efforts. All of this progress is little comfort to the millions of Americans still living in food deserts, but it’s progress nonetheless.

The imperative for 2012 will be to build on these accomplishments.

More retailers should consider increasing their roles in these communities, even as research and analysis into the problem gets more granular. Food desert expert Mari Gallagher has emphasized metrics that help clarify which types of retail projects are most likely to successfully address problems, and she is pushing for a closer look at which projects really deserve and need incentives.

Another worthwhile effort is ensuring that retailers in the SNAP program are truly serving its goals, a move that could involve more enforcement and even increasing standards, said Gallagher, who is advocating change in this area.

Retailers will also need resources to aid their efforts in food deserts. Food Marketing Institute recently produced a guide to addressing underserved areas, and plans a number of activities in 2012 to communicate information about resources, including through webinars that focus on topics such as funding.

The holiday season is traditionally a time to think about those in need, so let’s express the hope that in a few years the efforts outlined here will eradicate problems. Imagine a U.S. map without deserts – and I’m not referring to Arizona and Nevada!

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