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The Time Has Come to Eradicate Food Deserts

The Time Has Come to Eradicate Food Deserts

In writing this week's news article on the food deserts issue, I thought about how it compares to the health care debate. For one thing, both involve large numbers of people lacking a basic service.

According to Census Bureau reports, the number of people in the U.S. without health insurance coverage was 46.3 million in 2008, and the recession has undoubtedly driven that number up. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 23.5 million people in the U.S. live in food desert communities that are more than one mile from a supermarket and thus lack ready access to fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables.

There's even a correlation between the two groups. Undoubtedly many of the people who live in low-income areas without supermarkets also can't afford health insurance. Yet because their diets include a much smaller intake of healthy foods, those people are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes and heart disease for which they will need medical care.

Here's where the food deserts issue looks very different. Unlike health care reform, the need to eradicate food deserts has lately inspired bipartisanship and unanimity of purpose among trade associations, local governments and community groups, along with support from the White House.

What's galvanized support for a national effort to eliminate food deserts is the remarkable success of Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, as described in this week's news story. That public-private program has helped develop 83 new or improved grocery stores to underserved urban and rural communities. It's prima facie evidence that with the right government support, supermarkets can successfully operate in neighborhoods previously avoided by mainstream food retailers.

It is still up to individual supermarket companies to take the plunge. No one expects any food retailer to open up a store in a food desert because it answers a pressing social need. These stores need to be sound business propositions, and the Pennsylvania experience has demonstrated that they can be.

What's needed to succeed in low-income areas with diverse ethnicities, it turns out, is very similar to what's required in any community — a keen appreciation of customer wants and needs. Of course, those wants and needs may be very different from the mainstream — and quite challenging in many instances.

But the industry is already moving toward a much more ethnic, customer-centric and neighborhood-based orientation and a much less cookie-cutter approach. The emergence of smaller formats with a strong value emphasis also fits well with an expansion into urban markets. And the elevation of healthier and more natural foods coincides perfectly with the needs of nutritionally compromised communities.

The stars are aligned for food retailers to crack the food desert problem.

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