There’s no clear-cut way to eradicate food deserts, but Carrie Ferrence believes a shipping container full of perishables is a good place to start.
This fall, the recent business school graduate and a fellow classmate opened Stockbox Grocers in a parking lot in the underserved Delridge neighborhood of Seattle. During its three-month trial run, the market offered an assortment of fresh produce, dairy, meat and other perishables. The shipping container, meanwhile, wasn’t used to distribute food to the store — it was the store.
“We were looking for ways to minimize our setup and operating costs,” said Ferrence. “That’s really one of the bigger reasons why grocery and convenience stores aren’t serving these communities with good food.”
Indeed, food retailers have traditionally shied away from low-income areas where shoppers aren’t perceived as valuing produce, perishables and other high-turnover products found in a typical supermarket. This has given rise to grocery-starved food deserts, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture comprise 10% of the country and are home to more than 23 million consumers.
As public interest in these areas has grown, however, and as the Obama administration has offered up financial incentives to companies willing to build stores in them, supermarkets are taking a second look. Last summer, as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America initiative, Wal-Mart Stores and Supervalu each committed to building more than 200 stores in underserved neighborhoods over the next couple of years. Other, smaller chains like New York’s Bogopa Service Corp. and its Food Bazaar stores, which recently received $450,000 in sales tax exemptions from the city, have also begun expanding their presence in urban areas.
It might take more than just plunking down a store, though, to meet the needs of these neighborhoods. A study by researchers at the University of North Carolina followed 5,000 consumers over 15 years and found that proximity to a supermarket had little impact on whether they followed a healthy diet or not.