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Food Desert Initiative Scales New Retail Heights

Food Desert Initiative Scales New Retail Heights

Lately we've seen retailers making big strides in social responsibility, in everything from sustainability to good works programs.

Now comes an effort that's even more ambitious in many ways. Retailers are joining the campaign to eradicate food deserts by pledging — that's right pledging — to open stores in underserved communities.

The big, high-profile event here was the recent commitment by Wal-Mart Stores, Walgreen Co. and Supervalu to open or expand some 1,500 stores in underserved communities, an effort linked to First Lady Michelle Obama's Partnership for a Healthier America. Executives from a number of independent supermarkets also made promises of their own.

Obama also disclosed the creation of the California FreshWorks Fund, a $200 million partnership aimed at spurring California retailers to launch stores in food deserts and expand healthy food choices.

These developments are significant for bringing national attention to a cause that until now was championed more at the local levels, said Mari Gallagher, a food desert expert who is principal at Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group.

Skeptics might say that retailers are going to enter food deserts anyway because it makes good business sense. Or because it's good PR and helps a company like Wal-Mart soften opposition in some communities.

Well, maybe. Business motives are always complex. But there's a lot of good in these moves, and the alliance with Michelle Obama, as one Wal-Mart executive said in a news report, “causes companies like ours to go back and ask questions that challenge ourselves.”

That, plus financial incentives for some operators, is likely to keep efforts moving.

Here are some other things that can sustain momentum:

The business economics will have to be compelling. Financial incentives can help spur activity at first, but not forever.

• Continued involvement of both chain and independent retailers is crucial, and healthy competition between these groups can help maintain activity.

• Data and research should be employed in determining where to build stores. Gallagher, for example, cited a metric that predicts how much each new grocery store could improve the aggregate lifespans of residents in particular underserved communities.

Perhaps the biggest mistake would be to anticipate a quick resolution to the food desert problem. This is a long-term battle, and it would be a shame if people became discouraged because of unrealistic expectations.