Natural Foods Merchandiser interviews John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust in Philadelphia, about the strategies that can combat hunger and poor dietary health caused by urban “food deserts,” or areas without access to healthy foods.
Q: How do you define a food desert
A: These are low- to moderate-income areas with poor access to grocery stores and fresh produce. In many such communities, there are lots of convenience stores and fast food outlets selling food that’s high in fat, salt, and sugar. What we’re trying to do is to replace some of those stores with grocery stores, and our focus is really on fresh fruits and vegetables. If you can provide more outlets selling fresh produce, that’s going to improve the health of the community.
Q: How do you decide where to do your next project?
A: When you go to a community meeting in a low-income community, you realize how high on the priority list having a supermarket is. We do outreach to educate communities and the grocery-store industry about available funds for stores willing to locate in an underserved area. Through the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a $120 million program that provides grants and loans to grocers, the Food Trust reviews applications and determines eligibility based on local economics and availability of stores within the proposed project area. Most of our successful applicants are family-owned supermarket chains of seven to ten stores.
Q: Why aren’t there more grocery stores in low-income, urban areas?
A: It can be challenging to get start-up capital because sometimes banks see these areas as higher risk. Also, getting enough land is much more challenging than in the suburbs. Finally, there is perception. In some of these underserved areas, there are lots of people who might not have as much money, but they do have lots of buying power. If you’re the only store in [the area], you have a good chance of being successful. That’s what we’ve found in Pennsylvania; all the stores we’ve funded have done extremely well. Now similar programs are taking shape in New York, Louisiana, and Illinois.