How a citizens' group is bringing quality groceries to food deserts
- In underserved Los Angeles County, an advocacy group called United Parents & Students (UPAS) formed to bring access to high-quality, nutritious food to neighborhoods including Inglewood, South Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, according to an article from Civil Eats. These areas currently have about 20 grocery stores for 1.5 million people, and the group is supported by 12,000 volunteers and 12 full-time staff.
- Grocery Outlet in Inglewood recently received a Store of Excellence award from the UPAS food justice committee. The award acknowledges stores for being clean and carrying several kinds of fresh produce, and UPAS heavily promotes these stores among the community, encouraging residents to shop there.
- The food justice committee evaluates stores based on the freshness and variety of meat, produce and dairy, cleanliness of stores, and offerings such as well-lit parking lots. While this seems like a low threshold for performance, UPAS has found several stores in its communities selling moldy food, charging high prices and delivering poor customer service.
In the U.S., many people have access to fresh, high-quality and nutritious food and don't think anything of it. In several areas, there are even too many grocery stores. But that is not the case everywhere, especially in largely urban areas of the country where access to high quality grocery stores is limited. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a community where at least 500 people, or 33% of an area's census tract, is more than a mile from a grocery store. But grocery stores should be serving communities at every level and in every neighborhood in the U.S., and access to food should not reflect geography or socioeconomic status.
UPAS believes its community deserves better, and the group is taking it upon itself to drive change. They’re using their findings to encourage city officials to enforce stronger health regulations for grocers, and are even going directly to store managers to recommend improvements. While UPAS doesn’t have an official role in regulating groceries, those stores that want to be good neighbors and win support of local shoppers should consider their recommendations.
While UPAS is a unique model, there are efforts throughout the U.S. to get more grocery stores and fresh food access in food deserts and underserved areas. In Louisville, Kentucky, Louisville Forward is trying to bring grocery stores to local food deserts by making real estate available to grocers at a low cost. In Richmond, Virginia, a city grant has brought a mobile farmers market to SNAP recipients in low-income neighborhoods. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the county is recruiting a fresh, nonprofit grocer called Good Food to replace an underperforming Safeway that closed in 2016. If this grocer opens, it will be helpful, but won’t fulfill all the needs of the surrounding community, which has just three grocery stores for 160,000 residents.
The cause of food deserts is multi-faceted and complicated. Grocery stores tend to avoid operating in these areas because of challenges of underperformance, perceived low demand or lack of real estate. But grocery stores should be part of a solution so that people in these communities have sufficient access to good food. The balance sheet may show a grocery store in a food desert as lost revenue, but from a corporate social responsibility perspective, there could be a major benefit in going into low-access communities.
Grocers located in food deserts could consider smaller, neighborhood format stores where they don’t have to stock as much inventory, or where the investment to open and operate doesn’t have to be as high. They could also offer products that better meet the needs of their community, such as freshly prepared meals and grab-and-go options —more logical for people in these communities who not only lack resources and income, but often don’t have time to prepare meals from scratch.
The good news is that food deserts seem to be decreasing, and there are continued efforts across multiple industries to provide better access for communities that are food insecure.
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