The lack of healthy food in our nation's poorest communities is finally making it into public discussion, but there's a tricky hurdle we've yet to get around: How to fix it. The most obvious solution--bring in food stores like supermarkets, which are correlated with people eating more fruits and vegetables--is a bureaucratic nightmare. "Food deserts," typically located in poor urban areas, usually come with limited building sites, hefty regulations and market realities that differ dramatically from the suburbs where supermarkets perfected their business model.
One small reason for hope has opened up in the last week: A series of shops owned by Tesco, a British food market that specializes in operating small stores selling fresh and prepared foods. As Amanda Shaffer and Robert Gottlieb point out in the Los Angeles Times today, this is not a cure-all: Tesco, motivated by profit like all businesses, has located the bulk of its stores in areas that either have reasonable access to food or arguably are affluent enough that going elsewhere for it isn't too difficult.
Yet, even if the Tesco shops themselves don't solve the problem, they stand as an example of two groundbreaking ideas: (1) Stores that make it easy to cook, not just buy premade food, are viable in the American marketplace, and (2) Developing small stores that work within a city's existing fabric, rather than trying to bring in large-scale stores, makes sense.
Some cities are already experimenting with making the most of small stores, attempting convince corner stores and bodegas to stock and promote healthier food. New York City has been successful in boosting the sale of low-fat milk citywide, and Phildelphia advocates are preparing to open the nation's first green bodega next week, stocked with fresh produce. Even in Detroit, where ubiquitous "party stores" stand in for the lack of a major supermarket, officials have discussed transform the existing food infrastructure, rather than merely bring in new supermarkets.
The bigger reason for focusing on small stores, however, is that they're successful for one reason: Their convenience. I shop at my corner bodega because it's easy, not because I'm impressed with the array of sodas and snack foods. I know I should go all the way to the grocery store, but that doesn't always happen. If I can pick up fresh vegetables around the corner at any hour, I'm far more likely to make myself a salad for dinner. Indeed, when New York City tried to get bodegas to sell pre-packaged apple slices and carrots to kids, it didn't go very well. I'd argue that the reason is that someone looking for a snack will get the chips, regardless; but if someone can buy food for a reasonable dinner, they're likely to go to the place that's convenient to them.
It's important not to ignore supermarkets, of course; they provide jobs and for every additional one in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption increases by as much as 32 percent. Corner stores can't beat that. But small stores have thrived for a reason: They're convenient, close to home, and part of a neighborhood fabric. It makes sense to figure out ways to make them a place to get food you can actually cook for dinner--not eat instead of it.