Mom-and-pop vs. big-box stores in the food desert

by Gary Nabhan, Kelly Watters, via Grist.org,

A locally owned grocery in Pleasantville, Iowa. Photo: Ashton B Crew, wikimedia commonsA few weeks ago, when the Obama administration released its Food Desert Locator, many of us realized that a once-good idea has spoiled like a bag of old bread. If you go online and find that your family lives in a food desert, don’t worry: You have plenty of company. One of every 10 census tracts in the lower 48 has been awarded that status.

Two years ago, when one of us (Gary) moved to the village of Patagonia, Ariz., he inadvertently chose to reside in what the USDA deems to be on the edge of a food desert. Its maps show that Gary now lives more than 15 miles away from a full-service supermarket or chain grocery store that has 50 or more employees and grosses $2 million or more in food sales each year. Apparently, that’s bad.

Gary and his low-income neighbors are now being told that if they were bright enough to reside within walking distance or five minutes driving distance to a Safeway, Alberston’s, Winn-Dixie, or Walmart, they would undoubtedly be more “food secure.”

Why? A USDA report [PDF] to Congress in 2009 suggested that the average food in such big-box grocery stores is priced 10 percent lower than its counterparts in independently owned corner stores, roadside stands, or farmers markets. What’s more, the USDA claimed that “full service” big-box stores offer more affordable access to food diversity than do other venues.

Those assertions may be the biggest bunch of road apples that the USDA has ever tried to force down the throats of low-income Americans. The fatal flaw of the Obama strategy to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and obesity in America is that it risks bringing more big-box stores both to poor urban neighborhoods and to rural communities. It categorically ignores the fact that independently owned groceries, corner markets in ethnic neighborhoods, farmers markets, CSAs, and roadside stands are the real sources of affordable food diversity in America. But in its 2009 report to Congress, the USDA conceded that “a complete assessment of these diverse food environments would be such an enormous task” that it decided not to survey independently owned food purveyors. Therefore, it decided to ignore their beneficial roles and focus on the grocery-store chains that now capture three-quarters of all current foods sales in the U.S.

Unfortunately, we will get what we measure. The $400 million that the Obama administration has set aside to create greater food access in these so-called food deserts will likely go to attracting full-service grocery franchises that heap upon our children megatons of empty calories like those in high-fructose corn syrup and corn oil—yes, the very products that emerge from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s own great state of Iowa. But the profits made in those big-box stores will drain away from our neighborhoods and communities, bound for distant corporate headquarters, further impoverishing most food producers and consumers.

Instead, what we need is tangible support for rebuilding the rural and urban infrastructure that can enable more marketing of fresh, local foods by farmers, orchard keepers, and ranchers directly to neighboring consumers. The lack of a big-box store in our community may be an asset, not a disadvantage in keeping our children healthy and food secure.

Click here to read the rest of this article at Grist.org.