By: C.N. Staff Writer
As part of Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative, a group of major food retailers promised in 2011 to open or expand 1,500 grocery or convenience stores in and around neighborhoods with no supermarkets by 2016. By their own count, they’re far short.
Moreover, an analysis of federal food stamp data by The Associated Press reveals that the nation’s largest chains — not just the handful involved in the first lady’s group — have since built new supermarkets in only a fraction of the neighborhoods where they’re needed most.
The Partnership for a Healthier America, which also promotes good nutrition and exercise in its anti-obesity mission, considers improving access to fresh food a key part of the solution. But the AP’s research demonstrates that major grocers overwhelmingly avoid America’s food deserts instead of trying to turn a profit in high-poverty areas.
The nation’s top 75 food retailers opened almost 10,300 stores in new locations from 2011 to the first quarter of 2015, 2,434 of which were grocery stores. Take away convenience stores and “dollar stores,” which generally don’t sell fresh fruits, vegetables or meat, and barely more than 250 of the new supermarkets were in so-called food deserts, or neighborhoods without stores that offer fresh produce and meats.
As the largest supermarket chains have been slow to build in food deserts, dollar stores have multiplied rapidly. Three chains — Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree — made up two-thirds of new stores in food deserts. And the dollar store sector is consolidating: Dollar Tree merged with Family Dollar this year, creating the largest dollar-store chain in the nation and, in the process, less competition and less incentive to diversify what these stores offer.
Excluding dollar stores and 7-Elevens, just 1.4 million of the more than 18 million people the USDA says lived in food deserts as of 2010 got a new supermarket in the past four years.
On top of all that, it’s difficult to say how many more people live in newer food deserts created by recent store closures.
Viola Hill used to walk several times a week to a Schnucks supermarket a block away from her apartment in her struggling north St. Louis neighborhood, until that store closed last year. Now, she can get to a supermarket only once a month, when she pays a friend $10 to drive her to one several miles away.
“I have to get enough food to last me a whole month,” said Hill, a retiree who likes to cook chicken and green beans. “It hurt us really badly when they closed because we depended on the Schnucks for medication and my food there. It was a lot of people hurt, not just me.”
Schnucks officials said they were losing money on the store, which now sits boarded up with weeds growing in its parking lot.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a neighborhood a food desert if at least a fifth of the residents live in poverty and a third live more than a mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural areas, where residents are more likely to have cars.