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Supermarket Chains Fail on Promise to Open in Food Deserts

Words by Leon Kaye

Love or hate the idea, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, like other past first lady pet-projects, falls in the tradition of improving social good. Previous first ladies have advocated for issues including mental health awareness, drug abuse, literacy and, in Ms. Obama’s case, the improvement of public health through instilling better eating habits. Considering the struggles many Americans have with heart disease and obesity, the cause is a noble one. One result of Ms. Obama’s advocacy is the Partnership for a Healthier America, which espouses a variety of goals to make Americans more active and make better eating choices.

One of the aims of Partnership for a Healthier America was to open more supermarkets in America’s food deserts: areas that lack grocery stores and other options for fresh, healthy food. Like many initiatives that involve corporate responsibility, this idea attracted all kinds of attention. Many retailers promised to open stores that would expand options for fresh food in poorer neighborhoods. As as is the case with many big ideas (such as the activity around the current COP21 talks), the quest to expand better food options inspired a lot of “me too!” activity, as food companies pledged that they would take action so that 18 million or so Americans could have easier access to supermarkets and, most importantly, healthful food.

But as a recent Associated Press analysis explains, following the hype around this announcement in 2011, very little has happened. Of the 2,400-odd grocery stores that have opened the past four years, less than 10 percent of them are in these so-called food deserts.

One question, of course, is whether this is really a problem at all. Some evidence suggests that getting more fresh meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables into poor neighborhoods really does not cure the health problems associated with poverty. And some companies have tried to base themselves in neighborhoods lacking grocery stores, only to fail. Unfortunately, this problem has less to do with the neighborhoods than with the way in which supermarkets operate.

For example, take Tesco’s Fresh and Easy, which opened with much fanfare across central and southern California almost a decade ago. Neighborhoods such as Hollywood and Eagle Rock/Mount Washington in Los Angeles, as well as downtown Fresno, suddenly had a full-service grocery store. But the nicely laid-out, clean stores, with well-priced items, had several problems.

Many shoppers found the chain neither fresh nor easy. Never mind the fact that many shoppers found the automated check-out lines annoying and confusing, or that the sample corner often looked as if it were warehousing last week’s samples. Like many chains, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, Tesco standardized its product offerings across all of its stores. So, while that organic masala curry sauce may have been a hit in Eagle Rock with Occidental College students down the street, it was a miss in many other stores. Other customers, expecting fresh food, instead saw produce so over-packaged that even Trader Joe’s would blush, and simply moved on.

And while the corner store in that underserved neighborhood may be criticized for having higher prices and less of a selection, the chances run high that it knows what its customers buy — like the many corner stores serving the immigrant Armenian populations in Glendale, Little Armenia and a few hours north in Fresno. But the business model of many supermarkets do not take into account the demographics of individual neighborhoods. Sadly, your closest Costco will probably be more inclined to serve local products and understand the ethnic makeup of your community rather than its competing supermarket chains.

Unfortunately for these communities, the odds of a large grocery store opening up in these areas is becoming slimmer. The food retail industry is in flux, with more mergers underway and profit margins become thinner as the Krogers and Safeways of the world cope with consumers who increasingly buy their groceries at the likes of Target, and of course, Walmart or even Amazon.

Nevertheless, there is a chance at developing some creative ideas here. Depending on now 'food desert' is defined, that closest grocery store is still only one to three miles away. True, that is hardly convenient when you are grocery shopping for a family of four, but the sharing economy has an opening here. Why can’t Lyft and Uber partner with chains that claim to have a social mission, such as a Kroger’s or Publix? These companies can work together on making it affordable to get from these underserved neighborhoods to these food oases. Or, bring the store to these neighborhoods: Take a play from the food trucks’ playbook, and schedule drives to these neighborhoods with basic staples, as well as fresh produce. Will these ideas work? Who knows; they have not even been tried. But surely a compromise can be found, because considering the costs of opening a store, hiring staff and maintenance, no business will open in a location unless it can make that 1- to 3-percent profit margin and be profitable after eight to 10 years.

Food deserts and oases aside, these companies that made promises should be held accountable. The challenge, however, is that the Partnership for a Healthier America’s list of partners reads more like a who’s who of academia and food brands, with retailers lacking. And the organization’s news releases are more of a public relations love-fest than suggestions of real, workable solutions. As with many noble causes, the ideas are good, but the execution is lacking.

Image credit: The White House (Flickr)

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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