Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 4, 5 or 6
And meat, and fruit…
Neighborhoods need full-service groceries for consumers to shop for healthy, fresh food, but businesses need customer bases before they can locate to areas.
“We look at geographic gaps, areas that are left un-served,” says John Elliott, Public Affairs Manager for Kroger’s division supervising Illinois stores.
“That has to balance,” he continues. “Each store is its own profit center [and] has to stand on its own. It’s a matter of a sufficient flow of customers. We want to do business, but we still won’t fill all the food-desert gaps.”
The “food-desert” gaps may seem odd to face in February – National Snack Food Month. However, it’s also Berry Fresh Month and AARP Hunger Awareness Month, and there’s no time like the present, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA says that 23.5 million Americans in 6,500 urban and rural areas are food deserts, areas where there’s limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food needed to maintain a good diet (areas often served by just fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.)
“These are generally areas where income is low,” said retail and consumer analyst Phil Lempert with SupermarketGuru.com. “Higher-calorie foods are more affordable.”
The consequences go beyond food choices, say people who connect the lack of balanced diets to poor health care, ranging from effects on growing strong bones and teeth and a greater incidence of high blood pressure, to diabetes, stress, and children’s attention spans.
Besides the need for fresh food, there’s concern about economic development. After losing retailers, food deserts can discourage investment in small towns and urban neighborhoods. Locating in such areas has risks, concedes Anne Palmer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health’s Food Communities and Public Health Program, because groceries have small profit margins and some well-meaning grocers may not have the experience or skills to operate outside traditional formats.
“One of the things I’ve come to appreciate is just how complicated this is,” she’s said. “Changing perceptions and attitudes is part of the equation of long-term behavior change [and] what works for some will not work for others.”
Targeting specific customers in neighborhoods and rural communities is the best way to compete, Kroger’s Elliott says.
“Our ‘loyalty cards’ help us tailor our stores to our customers,” Elliott says. “We know what to stock.”
Elsewhere, Kroger has different types of stores, such as its warehouse-style Ruler Foods (comparable to Aldi’s) in some Midwest markets, and its Food 4 Less outlets in Chicagoland.
Also in Chicago, the upscale Whole Foods chain is launching a store in the Englewood neighborhood, where the median income is $19,700, compared to $38,625 in Chicago and $ 54,124 in the state).
In Philadelphia, Jeff Brown/s Super Stores company has 11 ShopRite locations in low-income areas, and – after meeting with community leaders – they became profitable neighborhood hubs, with healthy foods plus features such as nutritionists, government-service referral desks, or health clinics. Brown’s said he’s considering opening a jazz club and beer garden in some stores.
Brown, who hires neighborhood residents for his union jobs, also has a non-profit spinoff, UpLiftsolutions.org, offering ideas to entrepreneurs looking at food deserts as opportunities, not problems.
Among various ideas is the role of elected officials, says Peoria City Councilwoman Denise Moore.
“City government can and must play a part,” she says. “Areas hardest hit by the economy and governmental neglect will need the support of the entire Peoria community. It will be the collaboration of free enterprise and the support of all citizens to direct city spending that will help turn the tide.”
[PICTURED: Cartoon by Rob Rogers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via spoonuniversity.com.]