FORTUNE: FOOD DESERT REALITY: debate intensifies over food access, 8/15

August 16, 2013

From Fortune Magazine – August 15, 2013

Swaths of urban America are USDA-designated food deserts. Experts may disagree on the term and the numbers involved, but the problem is real.

Oneikah Delgado walks two hours to buy her family food. The 40-year-old mother of six lives in the Bronx’s Baychester neighborhood. Delgado makes her monthly visit to Part of the Solution (POTS) in the Bronx, where they have a food pantry for people to supplement their household supplies with canned vegetables, fresh produce, eggs, beans, and grains. About 80 people visit the pantry each day, which happens to be a few blocks away from a supermarket.

And this is where the term food desert falls short. According to the USDA, Delgado’s Baychester neighborhood isn’t a food desert. In fact, using the same definition, none of the Bronx is. But the experiences of people visiting POTS suggest otherwise. These areas might have access to bodegas or medium-sized grocery stores, but for low-income families, they are not a reasonable option. “There’s a struggle every day. Not only with finding food but with finding it at a decent price,” says Stephanie Ann Serrano, a local resident who’s been volunteering at POTS for two years. “In areas where they don’t have many supermarkets, they have bodegas, and bodegas usually raise their prices. They could be paying double the amount.”

But why the supermarket shortfall? The industry made more than $600 billion in 2012.

“The perceptional issue is that low-income people don’t spend money. But if they’re at high density there’s a market,” says Don Hinkle-Brown, CEO of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), which since 2004 has financed over 90 supermarkets in underserved areas of Pennsylvania. Since then, the model has spawned similar programs in New York, Louisiana, and California.

Brian Lang, Director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust says supermarkets stay away because urban settings force them to rethink the shape and size of their stores. Walgreens (WAG) can’t transplant its standard rectangular layouts from the sprawling suburbs into tightly packed neighborhoods. TRF’s Hinkle-Brown highlights another issue. A supermarket’s employees tend to live very nearby. “If they’re operating in low-income areas, they’re less work-ready. It takes six months longer to train them, and insurance costs are higher in urban areas,” he says.

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