Less than 20 years ago, no one had ever heard of a "food desert." The problem the term represents—an area where it's difficult to find affordable, healthy food—isn't particularly new. But the phrase itself is. It was first used in 2005 in a report from the British government's Department of Health.
Since then loads of differing definitions of "food desert" have emerged. Some refer to places where the geography plays a role in limiting food access, i.e., poor, rural areas where getting around requires a vehicle. In other situations a food desert refers to places where the cost of the food is the primary issue, a phenomenon most pronounced in urban areas.
But we're less interested in the debates over how to define a food desert than we are in the search for ways to serve them.
Here are five recent approaches worth looking at:
1. NON-PROFIT GROCERY STORES
The folks in Chester, Pa., don't have it easy. The community of 35,000 once had five supermarkets. But they started closing as manufacturing jobs disappeared and poverty in the city skyrocketed. The last supermarket in Chester shut down in 2001.
Then, in September, Fare and Square opened for business. The 16,000 squarefoot operation offers discounts to people with income below the federal poverty level. Some 60 percent of Chester's population has signed up for those discounts.
2. DEVELOPMENTAL DEALS
Pittsburgh's Hill District hadn't had a supermarket in 30 years. And no grocer seemed interested in building one. Enter the community development group called Hill House Economic Development Corp. HHEDC put together financing to build a $12.5 million shopping center in the heart of the neighborhood.
One of the first tenants was a Shop 'n Save, owned by Ross Markets. Executives from the company had worked with business and community leaders to build the center.
Over in North Philadelphia, a similar story unfolded. A local developer named Michael Grasso saw opportunity in a food desert when Tasty Baking Co. made plans to close a warehouse.
Cobbling together development funds from investors, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, Grasso managed to buy the warehouse and use the land to create Baker's Center, a shopping center that contains a 72,000-square-foot ShopRite.
The opposite of a food desert is a place where there's so much good, healthy food that much of it winds up wasted. In other words, the opposite of a food desert is much of the rest of America.
Arthur Morgan is the sort of guy who wants to link those two worlds.
He created a group called "Gather Baltimore," in which volunteers collect food that would otherwise be wasted from farmers markets, local farms and produce distributors. The food is then delivered to families in need in neighborhoods where healthy food is not readily available.
4. TOTAL REBOOTS
Urban food deserts are often filled with places to buy food ... just not healthy food. And no place in America is this more true than in the South Bronx, where tiny corner bodegas are the only shopping option for tens of thousands of people.
Enter City Harvest, a non-profit with multiple operations in New York City. In its latest venture, City Harvest is teaming with local bodegas and teaching store owners and employees how to buy, store and market fresh produce.
The program seems to be working. At one of the first stores to participate the number of produce types carried rose from just three to 24, some of them precut and given prominent display at the front of the store.
When the Pathmark store on Cherry Street in the New York neighborhood known as Two Bridges closed late in 2012, it left the area with few options.
The community, which stands in the shadows cast by the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges is home to a number of public-housing projects and large numbers of elderly people. Chinatown is nearby. And Chinatown is veritable paradise of healthy foods. But for elderly people a walk of a dozen city blocks can border on the impossible.
So if the people can't get to the food, why not bring the food to the people?
That's the idea behind the Veggie Van, the brainchild of local politicians and activists. The vans deliver bags of fresh fruit and veggies, priced at $10 a bag, to residents of Two Bridges who sign on as customers.
Some 125 families signed on to the program within the first few days.
Would you like to see more retail news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Retail Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Retail Dive's look at the top 15 chocolate candies in the U.S.