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In Urban Food Deserts, Entrepreneurs Create Much-Needed Oases

With systemic food inequity in the United States, this series features local entrepreneurs creating healthier, sustainable solutions in their communities.

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Researchers and government officials in the United Kingdom began using the term “food desert”1 in the 1990s to describe what health minister Tessa Jowell called an area “where people do not have easy access to healthy, fresh foods—particularly if they are poor and have limited mobility.”2

The U.S. government has said increases in obesity rates and diet-related diseases “are major public health problems,” made worse by a lack of access to nutritious foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fresh dairy and meat products) in some rural and urban pockets across the country.3

In 2009, the USDA said 23.5 million Americans lived in food deserts, and half of those people were also poor.

Some of those communities have “easier access to fast-food restaurants and convenience stores but limited access to supermarkets,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That combination can lead to a greater risk of obesity and health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that diets rich in fruits and vegetables could even “reduce the risk of some types of cancer and other chronic diseases.”4

In 2009, the USDA said 23.5 million Americans lived in food deserts, and half of those people were also poor. As foods that are high in fat and sugar have become cheaper, obesity rates among the poor have grown faster than Americans who are food-secure. The USDA defines food insecurity as a “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet.”

In an interview, Sonya Grier, the chair of the marketing department at the Kogod School of Business at American University who specializes in the impact of marketing unhealthy foods, highlighted the complexity of “other factors [that] serve as constraints or reinforcers of unhealthy eating.” Even when communities have access to a grocery store, healthy food is more expensive, and companies target black consumers5 and Latino consumers6 with marketing for higher calorie foods.

Traditionally, the one thing supermarkets, grocery stores and corner bodegas had in common was simple: profits. The USDA has pointed out that access to affordable and nutritious food relies on consumer demand. And profit-minded food companies have been leery of the higher costs associated with developing stores in poor communities.

“It’s about understanding what people want and how they want it. Understanding who’s in the community, what the community needs are, how you might reach them, who the power players are.”

—Sonya Grier, chair of the marketing department at the Kogod School of Business at American University

Not all entrepreneurs are scared off by the challenges of opening and operating food businesses in underserved communities, however. This series tells the stories of six for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs across the country who see promise and opportunity in serving communities in food deserts. Whether it’s offering produce prescriptions in Washington, D.C., opening the only black-owned grocery store in Detroit, or providing produce subscriptions for Native American pueblos in New Mexico, these businesses share a deep investment in their communities. They are also united by an agile approach to refining their business models and a quest for measurable impacts and sustainable solutions for the people they serve.  

To really see success, “It’s about understanding what people want and how they want it,” Grier said. “Understanding who’s in the community, what the community needs are, how you might reach them, who the power players are.”

Just as these local businesses invest in their communities, ultimately communities need to invest in new solutions. Whether food inequity persists “really depends on the types of investments we make,” she continued, “whether or not we decide to support entrepreneurs and these types of endeavors so they can change the notions of food access in ways we haven’t thought about.”