What does equitable food retail look like?

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The term “food desert” implies impossibility for growth; it implies that an area is dried up, that the environment has determined one’s fate to have low access to fresh food. But any community can have “fertile” land if community members are willing to collaborate for healthy food access. Large corporate grocery stores have begun to use the “food desert” term as a public relations tool. Walmart has started an initiative to put more stores in “food desserts”, as a way to demonstrate a commitment to social change. Michelle Obama may have praised them for their efforts to make fruits and vegetables more affordable but real solutions lie within communities themselves. Walmart does not support sustainable food systems. Healthy, local food sales have started to appear in already existing corner convenient stores in order to address food availability and health disparity. These initiatives allow businesses and consumers to increase healthy options while also enhancing local food movements.

 The hidden costs of food have a severe effect on health disparities in the US. Chronic illnesses associated with food insecurity (diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease) are more avoidable than ever. Store accessibility is a major factor on SNAP redemption choices (FRAC, 2013). Convenient stores are beginning to utilize existing resources and strength of location to stock healthy food. Before, the challenges were too great and demand too low to bother but this is starting to change (Gittelsohn & Anliker, 2010). Corner stores can provide healthy, local food in areas that are relying on fast and processed meals. They are also typically in places of low-income and racial minority settings, in close proximity with SNAP recipients.

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This demonstrates the relationship between unhealthy food options, income, and race in Durham and Chapel Hill, NC.
Source: The spatial and socio-economic distribution of healthy food options in Durham-Chapel Hill, NC. US EPA/ORD

 In Philadelphia, the Healthy Corner Store Network has made great strides to expand fruit and vegetable sales in low-access areas. They provide direct support for store owners to properly stock, display and sell healthy food. They have decals and posters that identify that the store has healthy options. The website also has a map of healthy corner stores, SNAP participating stores, and farmers markets to make finding a convenient location easy and simple. They also evaluate barriers for storeowners and the impact and sale of healthy food in order to make appropriate changes and increase efficiency.

In order for SNAP benefits to truly improve the health disparities in our nation, local movements must provide a wide range of healthy and convenient choices. Convenient stores have more flexibility with the marketing of healthy food and maximizing efficiency based on customer preferences and local availability. With networks such as the Healthy Corner Store Network, cities can stock food directly from farmers or community gardens can supply produce to the nearest convenient store. Enhancing fresh food availability in unexpected places can strengthen the scope and impact of SNAP benefits. Most importantly, keeping food supply local maintains power for residents to make their own food decisions and have a say in the sources and supply of healthy food.

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Gittelsohn, J. & Anliker, J.A. (2010). Process evaluation of Baltimore healthy stores: A pilot health intervention program with supermarkets and corner stores in Baltimore City. Health Promotion Practice, 11(5). Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3042858/

 (2013). A review of strategies to bolster SNAP’s role in improving nutrition as well as food security. Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). Retrieved from: http://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/SNAPstrategies.pdf

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What are the impacts on public health?

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The food industry has a fundamental influence on the American food diet and culture. Processed foods with high quantities of high fructose corn syrup, salt, hydrogenated oils and fat are ubiquitous. Fast food and pre-prepared foods are high in energy but have very little nutritional value (Neff, Palmer, McKenzie, & Lawrence, 2009). These images have become the norm:

We are all fully aware that chronic diseases like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are a serious threat to the public health of the United States. Since 1980, the number of obese adults has more than doubled and the number of obese children is now four times what it was thirty years ago (Ikerd, 2010). These rates are not a result of poor self-control or refusal to diet, they stem from the food system.

The biotechnology giant, Monsanto, exhibits this widespread impact. Monsanto’s website labels them as a “sustainable agriculture” company and that their aim is to improve food security around the world. This seems like an admirable goal. In America, 11.1% of people are food insecure and 4.1% have “very low food security” (Neff et al., 2009).

However, Monsanto’s website says, “Our goal is to double yields of corn, soybeans, cotton, and spring-planted canola between 2000 and 2030.” They expect this will also reduce hunger around the world. However, their business is intrinsically benefits industrial agriculture and the imbalance in food production towards unhealthy foods. Clearly they would rather sustain the unsustainable monoculture that already threatens our land and livelihood. Although the claims that genetically engineered food cause serious health issues (such as allergies and cancer) are troubling, the larger issue is the hidden cost of high incentives for commodity crops and extreme barriers for the production, manufacturing, and marketing of healthier, fresh food.

The lack of healthy food options disproportionally affects populations of low-income, ethnic minority, lower education attainment, inner city and rural communities (Neff et al., 2009). African Americans and Latinos suffer from higher rates of heart disease and diabetes and have almost double the national average of food insecurity. The lack of incentives for fresh food is most detrimental to these vulnerable populations.

Affordable and local fruits and vegetables are becoming a rarity due to lack of proper distribution infrastructure, higher production costs, and lack of governmental support (Neff et al., 2009). Fruits and vegetables are not standardized like corn, soy, and wheat, they perishable and need to be sold fresh. This simply does not fit into to our national model of mega-agriculture. Fresh food is less profitable and more susceptible to development; 91% of fruits and 78% of vegetables are produced in urban-influenced areas, where land can be sold to build storefronts and suburbs (American Farmland Trust).

Healthy food disparity can only be fixed with regional empowerment to create systems to improve the distribution of fresh food. Putting a Walmart in a low-income community with limited food access is not the answer (Food & Water Watch). Large businesses consolidate to take money away from communities, farmers and workers in order to benefit the agribusiness sector (Food & Water Watch). On the other hand, small farms and regional fruits and vegetables keep income within a community. Cutting the distance food travels will cut the costs to communities, individuals, and the environment. This creates sustainable and healthy change for all Americans. In my next post, I will explore how this revolution has already begun in communities across the country.

 

 

Neff, R.A., Palmer, A.M., McKenzie, S.E., & Lawrence, R.S. (2009). Food Systems and Public Health Disparities. Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, 3, 169-185. doi: 10.1080/19320240802243241

(2012). Why Walmart Can’t Fix the Food System. Food & Water Watch. Retrieved from: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/reports/why-walmart-cant-fix-the-food-system/

Ikerd, John. (2010). Corporate Food System: Consequences for Public Health. Small Farm Today Magazine. Retrieved from: http://web.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/SFT-Corporate%20Food%20System%20(11-10).htm

What is Monsanto doing to help? Producing more. Retrieved from: http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/Pages/producing-more.aspx

What’s Happening to Our Farmland?. American Farmland Trust. Retrieved from: http://www.farmland.org/resources/fote/default.asp