To fix food deserts, think small

October 20, 2011

Millions lack easy access to abundant nutritional choices, but small stores and online orders could help pave the way to healthier foods in their homes.

Let’s think small to smartly address the nutritional blight in America’s food deserts – which the Feds define as low-income areas where one-third of residents live one mile or more from a supermarket.

A month ago, The Lempert Report urged that supermarkets collaborate with Internet service providers to give low-income households low-cost access and food deliveries – if not to individual apartments, at least to a satellite staging area for each block for multiple orders.  For consumers, this would beat lugging bags on buses with thawing food; and retailers could fill a market void without high capital expenditures.

There’s clearly a need for what First Lady Michelle Obama and The Partnership for a Healthier America aim to do with supermarkets. But large supermarkets and supercenters may not be the most efficient answer. Our thought to augment online access and delivery is a smaller–format approach that nestles easily into these neighborhoods, and is managed by people who know the local cultures, tastes preferences, nutritional gaps and holiday rituals with food.  Some appropriate choices might include: Walmart Express as it expands (the three-year test of Marketside ends this week), Tesco, fuller food assortments in Walgreens, and better nutritional offerings in family-owned mercados, bodegas and greengrocers. Supervalu, which has committed to 250 new low-price format Save-A-Lot stores in these areas in the next five years, could be viable too, partly because of price and partly because of ownership independence.

In California, Contra Costa Health Services is helping locally run small stores to become fuller-service grocers with healthier offerings, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Now they can become part of the solution – as long as bigger markets don’t enter these neighborhoods and take away their business. It makes sense to us that these operators, already part of the community fabric, help to usher in an era of better nutrition.