Food Deserts Remain Deserted

A just published AP analysis shows that grocery retailers are falling far short of meeting their own commitment to open up new or expand existing supermarkets in food deserts, areas of the country without access to grocery stores much less fresh fruits and veggies.

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Back in 2011, the nation's major retailers announced - under Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Healthy Communities - that together they would open or expand 1,500 grocery or convenience stores in and around neighborhoods with no supermarkets by 2016. 

The AP found that food deserts are largely remaining just that - areas of the country without ready access to healthy food.  Among the AP's findings - and as reported here - are the following:

  • The nation’s top 75 food retailers opened almost 10,300 stores in new locations from 2011 to the first quarter of 2015, 2,434 of which were grocery stores. Take away convenience stores and “dollar stores,” which generally don’t sell fresh fruits, vegetables or meat, and barely more than 250 of the new supermarkets were in so-called food deserts, or neighborhoods without stores that offer fresh produce and meats.
  • As the largest supermarket chains have been slow to build in food deserts, dollar stores have multiplied rapidly. Three chains — Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree — made up two-thirds of new stores in food deserts. And the dollar store sector is consolidating: Dollar Tree merged with Family Dollar this year, creating the largest dollar-store chain in the nation and, in the process, less competition and less incentive to diversify what these stores offer.
  • Excluding dollar stores and 7-Elevens, just 1.4 million of the more than 18 million people the USDA says lived in food deserts as of 2010 got a new supermarket in the past four years.

The first lady's group's also found in it's most recent (2014) progress report that "the companies that made the pledges have opened or renovated 602 grocery stores or other food retail locations, well below halfway toward their collective goal."

"The partnership counted companies as having met their commitments if the stores they opened or renovated fell within a mile of a USDA-designated food desert in a city, or within 10 miles of a rural one. The AP analyzed which of the new stores that opened lie directly within food deserts."

No matter how we slice and dice what 'counts' in terms of providing access to fresh food, those most in need of improved diets continue to lack adequate access to these basic needs. Perhaps there are other incentives - like joint wraparound services offered within the supermarket or improved transportation to stores - that will get companies to open up in areas where SNAP recipients drive their bottom line.