The First Lady’s campaign to end food deserts will pose new marketing challenges for supporting retailers – especially in New York City
By Michelle Hardy
Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity just won the support of major retailers such as Walmart, Walgreens, ShopRite and SuperValue, who pledged this past week to help eliminate America’s food deserts.
23.5 million Americans live in low-income areas with inadequate access to affordable healthy foods. Supermarket and drugstore chains in support of Obama’s efforts promise to bring more healthy foods into these food deserts by opening over 1,500 new stores with improved options.
This is a major leap forward for the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign – that is, as long as retailers remember one thing: simply stocking shelves with healthier food isn’t enough.
While limited access to healthy food options does correlate with diet-related illnesses, the presence of better food doesn’t necessarily predict healthy eating. The 2011 CARDIA Study, for instance, used 15 years of longitudinal data to measure healthy eating habits in relation to grocery store access and fast food presence. The study showed supermarket availability to be unrelated to diet quality and produce intake. Instead, the results primarily suggested the need for zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants and alternative educational strategies more so than increased access to supermarkets.
Access alone doesn’t reverse eating habits. So how can retailers make their move to food deserts count?
New York City’s Crisis
I reflected on the issue of food deserts quite frequently while living in the Bronx for several years. Unbeknownst to many of us here in New York, the South Bronx is experiencing the most severe hunger-related crisis in the entire country. The New York Times uses the phrase “Bronx Paradox” to describe the city’s ironic obesity capital, in which many of the country’s most nutritionally deprived people are morbidly overweight. A 2008 study by New York’s city government revealed that 9 of the Bronx’s 12 districts had too few supermarkets.
My experiences and research tell me that if the retailers are truly committed to selling healthy products in food deserts – and if they wish to increase sales of those products – they’ll need to address the entire ecosystem of those food deserts. That means going three steps further:
1) Consistent quality – most of the grocery stores I frequented in the Bronx already had ample produce choices, but in many instances this produce was of extremely poor quality. Understandably, it’s hard for families to develop healthy eating habits when faced with deformed (and expensive) vegetables that rot in a matter of a couple days. Hopefully retailers like Walmart – whose supply chain efficiency is world renown – can address some of these quality issues as they enter food desert locations. This increased quality will need to be a focal point of retailer promotions in order to convince communities their options have significantly improved.
2) Educational outreach – How many grocery stores have the USDA’s nutritional guidelines posted on grocery cart backs? How many stores have charts in their produce sections boasting of antioxidants or explaining recommended daily intake? How many grocers in food deserts hand out coupons for produce and health brands? How many employees hand out recipe cards to shoppers to give them healthy dinner ideas? None that I know of in the Bronx – and few anywhere else, for that matter. Retailers entering food deserts must realize that access doesn’t instantly translate into purchasing habits – especially in kingdoms where Burger King traditionally reigns. In many cases, retailers will need to create incentives to prompt habit change among their consumers.
3) Zoning restrictions on fast food – the amount of fast food restaurants crowded into a typical street in the Bronx can be overwhelming. As the 2011 CARDIA study suggests, increased access to grocery stores will not shift consumption habits until there is a correlating decline in availability of fast food. Fast food chains tempt the surrounding community in terms of convenience, and they most certainly tempt consumers in terms of price. Grocery stores cannot adequately compete unless they have a larger share of the local real estate. Retailers, then, can advocate such zoning changes and actively educate their customers on the negative impact of fast food.
*I could have included “fair price” in the above list, but this issue is vastly more complex (depending on many factors associated with location, food stamps, government policy, etc.). The government is experimenting with discount policies through their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (for instance, a 30-cent discount on every dollar spent on fresh produce), but retailers will need to decide whether they can or will mimic any discounts in food deserts in terms of sale items.
Let’s Move beyond the shelves
The retailers who responded to Michelle Obama’s challenge assumed a tremendous long-term responsibility. Walmart cannot simply open its doors in a food desert and watch eating habits magically transform. Upon entering low-income areas, retailers will need to raise awareness of their improved product quality, actively educate consumers on healthy eating, offer incentives to buy healthier products, campaign for zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants, and help inform consumers of the risks associated with fast food.
Stocking shelves is only the first step. Retailers joining the Let’s Move campaign in food deserts must commit to ongoing educational outreach and significant advocacy – for the sake of their consumers’ health and their sales health.