Inside This Issue - Opinion
Mass retailers look beyond bottom line
August 1st, 2011
America’s mass market retailers deserve a lot of credit for their efforts to improve access to healthy food in parts of the country where it is lacking.
The so-called food deserts, which exist in a multitude of urban and rural areas, adversely affect 11.5 million people, or 4.1% of the population, according to Department of Agriculture figures cited in “Access to Healthier Foods,” a new report from the Food Marketing Institute. Building on a forum for industry representatives and government officials sponsored by FMI and the Partnership for a Healthier America in May, the study assesses the challenges and opportunities faced by merchants in underserved communities.
Food retailers recognize the need to take action, says FMI president and chief executive officer Leslie Sarasin, "but long-term success demands this be accomplished in fiscally and socially responsible ways. Overcoming the multiple hurdles inhibiting store development in areas deserving service requires the very best cooperative efforts of government, community and industry, and even then it takes time."
After examining such potential stumbling blocks as an inadequate demographic base, high costs and the policies of food assistance programs, the report cites innovative solutions to the problem, including smaller store formats, better transportation for consumers and alternate grocery delivery systems. Brief case studies of Stop & Shop in New York City, Fresh & Easy in Southern California and Kroger’s Dillon chain in rural Kansas round out the picture.
Further evidence of the retail community’s commitment to transforming food deserts came last month. Executives from Walmart, Walgreens, Supervalu and other chains joined Michelle Obama, who has made good nutrition a focal point of her work as first lady, to announce plans to open or expand a total of more than 1,500 stores that offer healthy food in areas where it is now in scarce supply.
While the companies involved no doubt hope to do well by doing good, the thinking behind the initiative extends beyond the bottom line. They know that by bringing the benefits of mass market retailing — which in this case means easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthy food at affordable prices — to those areas, they will help improve the lives of people in the communities they serve.