A Better Solution for Food Deserts?

The past couple years have seen a lot of talk about “food deserts.”  These are colorfully named urban zones without a grocery store within one mile or rural zones without a grocery store within five miles.

Initially, these “food deserts” were seen as a major cause of our country’s twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes.  But lately they’ve been shown in a couple studies to be statistically uncorrelated to obesity.  The over-abundance of fast food in these regions may be a bigger cause than the absence of “healthy” food; and it may simply be that there are no grocery stores in this area because the people who live there simply wouldn’t shop at them anyway.  Given the choice, they’d still pick fast food.

Farmer's Market

Part of the solution. But only part.

But that doesn’t mean that food deserts aren’t a problem.  People seem to agree that, while education in these areas is the biggest problem–without knowing what their dietary choices truly mean for them, people in these regions wouldn’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables even if they were available–there also clearly is little purpose to educating people if they still then don’t have access to the fruits and vegetables anyway.

So it’s still be worth thinking about how to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to these areas, in the event that demand we can ultimately create a demand for these foods through some form of education.

Derek Singleton at Software Advice recently weighed in with some ideas on how best to do this.  Noting that currently, the issue of fruit and vegetable availability in erstwhile food deserts is being addressed primarily through farmer’s markets, regional food hubs and CSAs, Singleton suggests that there may be a more comprenehsive alternative.

Farmer’s markets, regional food hubs and CSAs are all excellent sources of fresh fruits and vegetables, but they are by nature limited both in terms of operating hours and percentage of the population reached.  Singleton, after interviewing industry participants, concludes that small, local groceries may be the way to go.

These wouldn’t be normal groceries, but would very thinly stocked a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.  Thin inventories would allow these markets to put the maximum variety in the smallest possible real estate, presumably increasing options without incurring comparable costs.  This way, people now in food deserts could have excellent selection–presumably increasing the desirability of eating fruits and vegetables to begin with–at prices that are relatively affordable, and through a system that nonetheless allows grocery operators to function profitably.

And these stores, unlike farmer’s markets, regional food hubs and CSAs, would be open regular hours and be locatable within a few blocks’ walk of any given neighborhood.

Of course, this system would require some changes: Singleton proposes allowing these grocery stores to place orders online with their suppliers, and have the produce deliverable within three to five hours, thus allowing the markets to keep thin inventories.  Delivering the pre-sorted produce would also speed up the process on the grocery side, and save on costs.

Can this system be put in place cost-effectively?  Singleton’s industry experts believe it can.  If they’re right, it seems certainly worth exploring.

Then all we have to do is create demand . . . .

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