A call for community-driven food ops

April 04, 2011

Supermarkets in food deserts are a flawed concept, says Wholesome Wave's Michel Nischan.

Why is the industry having so much trouble tackling the issue of food deserts?

In these areas with little access to healthful foods but plenty of fast food restaurants, incomes are low, and higher calorie, less nutrient dense foods are more affordable. Markets that carry fresh produce and healthier foods rarely exist in these neighborhoods, because these items generally cost more and are perishable.

General thinking is if supermarkets open in these communities, they generate local jobs and therefore support the store itself. It’s not that simple, says Michel Nischan, CEO, president and founder of Wholesome Wave, a privately funded incentive based, non-profit food assistance program that aims to impact communities on a holistic level.

His experiences in these communities prompt this explanation:  “Food deserts exist simply because there is a lack of affordability – whether it’s urban or rural. What’s interesting is that now everybody is 'trumpeting' and waving flags that we need to put supermarkets in food deserts. Everybody seems to have forgotten that just 20 years ago there were grocery stores in underserved communities, and they left because the people that live there don't have the type of income that allows them to afford to shop the whole."

“So when you have a population that can’t afford to shop the whole store, grocery stores simply aren’t viable in underserved communities," Nischan adds. "Food deserts are there because of lack of affordability, and the deeper root of the problem simply is that these are communities that have been redlined for re-gentrification don't have the infrastructure nor community-owned businesses, don’t have the jobs – these are everything deserts: food deserts, job deserts, and advocacy.”

The idea that the affordability is just not present in these “everything” deserts is probably the most important concept to understand. The Lempert Report completely agrees with Nischan that underserved communities are not in need of supermarkets, but instead a more innovative, integrated and community-led food operation.

Wholesome Wave is working on bringing sustainable food programs to underserved populations. Through his work, he sees "a real demand from these communities for fresh fruits and vegetables. They are far more educated on prevention and health outcomes related to diet than most of the population, but if the choice is between putting a head of broccoli on the table or something hot, they are going to choose something hot.”

Wholesome Wave’s core program, Double Value Coupon Program, doubles the value of ‘food stamps’ when used at participating farmers markets. The aim is to improve nutritional choices and the effectiveness of federal food assistance. Food stamp redemption is at an all time high, helping to feed one in eight Americans and one in four children, according to the USDA and the Census Bureau.