- One year after helping launch the Healthy Food For Ohio initiative, the Ohio Grocers Association told The Shelby Report the program is helping retailers open new stores and remodel existing ones in the state’s food deserts.
- HFFO offers a combination of loans and grants to help retailers pay real estate costs, as well as inventory and equipment costs. It focuses in particular on developments that will bring more healthy, affordable foods to consumers.
- Recently, HFFO helped Campbell’s Market secure a location in the town of McArthur, located in underserved Vinson County. “It’s difficult to get a retailer to open a store if it isn’t going to work,” Kristin Mullins, president and CEO of the OGA, told The Shelby Report. “If it would work, they would already be there.”
According to The Post, the student newspaper of Ohio University, residents of McArthur, Ohio, currently have to drive 60 miles round trip to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Faced with this, many simply opt for food from a local convenience store, or from one of the county’s many pizza parlors.
For years, officials in Vinton County, which includes McArthur, have campaigned to bring a food retailer to their underserved community of 13,000. Campbell’s Market will open in the town this August.
Ohio is one of many states offering generous incentives for grocers that build in underserved communities. Pennsylvania, for one, has helped fund more than 150 grocery stores in the state's food deserts through its Fresh Food Financing Initiative. Innovative start-ups like mobile groceries and small-format stores are also bringing food to America’s urban and rural food deserts. Last year, a former Trader Joe’s executive opened a supermarket in Boston that stocks food nearing its “sell by” and “use by” dates — thereby addressing food waste as well as food insecurity.
But research increasingly shows it takes more than just plunking down supermarkets to change the access problems and unhealthy lifestyles that exist in many food deserts. One study from 2014 tracked fruit and vegetable consumption in a Philadelphia community after a supermarket was built as part of a statewide initiative. Researchers found while residents’ agreed they had better access to fresh foods, there wasn’t an increase in consumption of these items.
Some locals in Vinton County say the Campbell’s Market won’t be a solution to all the county’s food insecurity issues. A local outreach coordinator told The Post McArthur is still a long drive for many residents in wide-ranging Vinton County, and that as many as 60% of residents are without vehicle transportation.
So what’s the answer? Acknowledging the complexity of the problem seems to be a good start. Beyond that, experts say it’s important for retailers to engage with community members on everything from product mix to the services that might be needed beyond the store itself. Grocers also should plan to use their marketing skills to promote healthy eating within these communities.