Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Retailers pledge to build more groceries to cut 'food deserts,' but that's not a rural solution

Grocery chains and other retailers announced today that they would build more stores in communities that "do not have access to fresh produce and other healthy foods," as a White House press release put it. The event was part of Michelle Obama's efforts to fight child obesity and otherwise make America healthier. (Photo: Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images) Wal-Mart's chief spokeswoman said "The first lady’s leadership on products, prices and access to healthier food has helped sharpen our focus on bringing affordable groceries to underserved urban and rural areas.”

However, there didn't seem to be much rural about the announcement. Retailers are unlikely to build stores in sparsely populated rural areas in or near "food deserts," and Wal-Mart is unlikely to build in places not large enough to have a grocery that sells fresh fruits and vegetables. Small, Montgomery-based Calhoun Foods, which also has stores in Selma and Tuskegee, Ala., was part of the announcement, but CEO Greg Calhoun said in a telephone press conference that his eyes were on Birmingham.

I wanted to ask about the rural impact of the effort, but the conference call for reporters ended too early, with me still in line. I would have also asked about the recent University of North Carolina study that found young adults in Birmingham, Chicago, Minneapolis and Oakland living close to supermarkets and groceries did not eat more fruits and vegetables or have a healthier overall diet. Reuters reported, "The findings suggest that attempts to improve the diets of inner-city residents will require a combined effort, including health education and incentives to make healthy food cheaper, researchers said."

And what about rural residents? Kansas City-based Harvest Public Media says U.S. Department of Agriculture grants are helping establish an unusual grocery in Cody, Neb., pop. 130, which lost its grocery 10 years ago, leaving residents 40 miles and a two-hour roundtrip from the nearest one. Clay Masters reports the store will be "non-profit; it will involve the high school through a hands-on business curriculum; and it will be constructed out of straw bales." (Read more)

One option might be something like the California FreshWorks Fund, which was part of today's announcement. It is "a joint effort by the California Endowment and a team of grocery industry groups, healthcare organizations and leading Wall Street banks," P.J. Huffstutter reports for the Los Angeles Times. It will "provide financing at or below market rates to encourage grocers to set up shop in underserved communities," she reports, and "Organizers expect that a portion of the lending will help mom-and-pop grocers and small, independently owned chains expand existing retail space and install new equipment such as refrigerated displays for fresh produce, eggs and meat. . . . The money could also be used by grocers to develop new distribution models, such as mobile produce trucks, to bring healthful foods into these neighborhoods. Or it could be used to finance collaborative, wholesale purchasing to help small retailers lower their costs." (Read more)

1 comment:

Ms. Eugene Kim, The Food Trust said...

I think Mrs. Obama understands that this problem confronts rural communities. In her speech, she emphasized the importance of a proposed national Healthy Food Financing Initiative to encourage investment in fresh food retailing nationwide. Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, the model for what the First Lady seeks to do, financed a number of rural projects in small Pennsylvania towns like Vandergrift (pop. 5,205) and Apollo (pop. 1,647). And she stated that a diverse array of options, from grocery stores to farmers markets will need to be considered by communities across America.