Retailers, help our food deserts bloom

Retailers, help our food deserts bloom

On a road trip passing through the Texas panhandle and parts of Oklahoma following the famed U.S. Route 66, I remember stopping in several small towns. I'm sure the places I visited each had distinct personalities, and if I'd stayed longer than enough time to buy a bag of pretzels and make a bathroom run, I would have been delighted to discover their charms. But I didn't. To me, these stops along the highway all looked the same—weathered houses, a few churches, a revived service station, a bar and a smattering of fast food joints. That was it.

It didn't occur to me to wonder where the people who lived in these towns bought groceries. When you grow up in the suburbs surrounded by competing supermarket chains, the idea that quality food is not immediately available to everyone is not something you consider. Luckily, today we are considering it. In towns like the ones I passed through and several across the country, fast food and the convenience stores are the only food options. It's not hard to imagine what winds up on dinner tables in these cities and why rates of obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing across the country, especially in children.

These "food deserts" (defined as any area of the world where healthy food is difficult to obtain) are not just isolated to rural areas. Experts estimate roughly half the residents of Detroit live in a declared food desert, and 630,000 Chicagoans live in neighborhoods with no grocery stores. Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that six percent of all U.S. households do not have access to quality food. That's just shocking considering we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The good news is this is an area where natural foods retailers can make a big difference.

At Natural Products Expo West this week, the education session How to Flourish in a Food Desert on Saturday, March 12 at 11:45 a.m. will suggest how store owners can build successful businesses in these often overlooked areas. Advice, tips to overcome perceived obstacles and success stories will be presented by Braham Ahmadi, co-founder of the People's Grocery which provides healthy and affordable food to residents in Oakland, Calif., Khanh Nguyen, senior program officer for the Colorado Health Foundation and Maren Stewart of Livewell Colorado a nonprofit organization committed to reducing obesity.

Whether retailers leave the session ready to relocate to Erick, Okla. or just with some ideas of how to reach out in their communities, it's time to start considering food deserts as destinations and not just stops along the way.

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