Innovative Distribution Can Combat Food Deserts


ERP Analyst, Software Advice

In Austin, we’re spoiled with healthy food choices. It’s the birthplace of Whole Foods, has a successful Texas-based grocery chain (HEB), several farmer’s markets, and a variety of organic food stores. But in Detroit, a city with roughly the same population as Austin, there are precious few options. That’s because parts of Detroit are in a food desert–a region without access to supermarkets and affordable, healthy food.

Food deserts are not unique to Detroit. They can be found in many low-income (typically urban) areas of the United States. I recently caught up with Dan Carmody, President of Detroit’s Eastern Market, and Frank Dell, CEO of food supply chain consultancy Dell Mart Inc., to discuss potential solutions to food deserts.

Before diving into their suggested solutions, however, I should note that food deserts are a multidimensional problem that requires multidimensional solutions. It’s important to keep in mind that these are just a few pieces to an incredibly complex puzzle.

Food Deserts Degrade Community Health

Approximately 2.4 million households live more than a mile away from the nearest supermarket and have limited access to quality, affordable food. In these regions, small shops and convenience stores with limited produce and high prices are often the only options.

The problem, at its core, is about the availability of fresh, wholesome products at suburban prices – Frank Dell, Dellmart Inc.

The lack of access to healthy and affordable food (combined with a disproportionate number of fast food restaurants) in these regions negatively impacts community health and nutrition. Poor access to healthy food, along with poor food decisions, is contributing to the obesity epidemic in this country–which costs nearly $150 billion in healthcare-related expenses annually.

Improving the supply of healthy food in these communities can help address food deserts’ negative impacts. Carmody believes that local food systems are best-equipped to address the problem.

Local Communities Can Address the Problem Themselves

In the absence of a strong food distribution network in Detroit’s food deserts, grassroots networks are stepping up to serve the community. Carmody sees these local efforts as an alternative to the large food corporations that are absent in Detroit.

“[Local food] is trying to do to food systems what blogs have done to the news system or what craft beers have done to the beer system.” – Dan Carmody, President of Detroit Eastern Market

Three local food distribution models are popping up in Detroit (and across the nation) to serve food deserts:

  1. Public market distribution – Farmer’s markets and other public markets are becoming a popular method of serving these areas. Carmody and neighborhood leaders are working to coordinate farmer’s markets in these neighborhoods.
  2. Regional food hubs – A regional food hub is a farmer’s market and distributor rolled into one. The Detroit Eastern Market is a food hub with more than 250 independent vendors processing, wholesaling and retailing food. It functions as an independent food supply chain that serves up to 40,000 people weekly.
  3. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) – According to Carmody, there are currently more than 1,600 community gardens–up from 80 in 2004–growing healthy produce in food deserts. These gardens take advantage of abandoned land and backyard space to get the neighborhoods involved in healthy food production.

These are all impressive grassroots efforts. However, they’re still in the early stages of scaling up. For instance, Detroit’s Eastern Market only happens on Saturdays and serves a small portion (perhaps six percent) of residents. For this reason, Frank Dell believes there needs to be a more permanent, storefront solution.

Online-Enabled Storefronts Provide Cheaper Distribution

These alternative distribution networks are good stop-gap measures that partially fill the healthy food supply void. But they are a long way off from creating the necessary supply. Dell believes that food deserts need small stores that are replenished with high frequency, low-volume deliveries. Dell envisions these stores as:

  • Within six blocks of the neighborhood so residents can walk to them.
  • Replenished according to Internet orders placed by the stores.
  • Able to provide the ordered food within three to five hours of order.

According to Dell, small storefronts that carry little fresh produce inventory serve these communities better than a farmer’s market or CSA. Dell believes these stores can offer a more diverse food variety thanks to the rise of packaged fresh produce. He also sees daily hours as superior to farmer’s market availability.

Of course, many of these neighborhoods already have small food retailers near them. So what’s the difference between these and what Dell suggests?

The key difference is that Dell believes this approach creates efficiencies by syncing online orders directly with warehouse shipping to create a more frequent distribution model. While this raises transportation and logistics costs, it can reduce handling costs by delivering pre-sorted fresh food. Selling fresh food in this way also increases product turnover since stores don’t have to hold as much inventory.

So, according to Dell, it’s cheaper and more efficient to distribute food via small storefronts in these neighborhoods.

Demand for Healthy Food Must Increase Alongside Supply

Supporting these alternative approaches to food distribution helps fill the healthy food gap in food desert communities. But creating a better supply of healthy food does little if community demand for healthy fruits and vegetables doesn’t grow alongside supply.

The need for education was one area that Dell and Carmody wholeheartedly agreed upon. As Carmody put it, “Trying to change people’s habits is a tough business.” But changing habits through education is equally as important as changing the habitual lack of quality food access in these communities.

What do you think it will take to get healthy food into food desert communities? If you have some innovative ideas, please leave your thoughts below. My discussion with Carmody and Dell proved personally enlightening. Let’s continue the conversation below.

I'd also like to thank Mark Vallianatos, Urban and Environmental Policy Professor at Occidental College, for his additional insight into this article. Thumbnail created by Zol97.

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