If you speak to economists and scientists who study data and look for empirical evidence, the concept of a food desert is not clear cut. While the correlation between low income areas and food related health problems such as obesity are well documented – the reasons for these health issues are debated. Many point to education, socioeconomic factors and other complex issues. Some even argue that adding grocery stores won’t do much to help the problem.
More recently the concept of a “food swamp” emerged as a better metaphor to describe food in low income areas. Where the term food desert implies a lack of water causing people to struggle, the term food swamp suggests a saturation of water in an unpleasant environment. The concept of a “food desert” doesn’t really hold up; people in a food desert aren’t drowning they are slowly eating themselves to death. In a swamp, there is plenty of water but the environment may be unhealthy for many people to live in. More important is how the term is truly intended. Writers are careful to clarify they mean that fast food chains have a “swamping” or inundating effect in low income areas and essentially crowd out all the healthy choices. There may be access to healthy foods in low income areas, but you might have to pass dozens of unhealthy food choices to get it.
Some good articles are listed here:
This idea of food swamps strikes a chord with us at because it gets at the heart of our passion of increasing access to healthy fresh food. We see the problem of food deserts / swamps as a result of quick serve restaurants out innovating grocers in a long war for market share. While grocers spend years developing and refining a single store type, fast food is now (according to Eric Schlosser) “…served at restaurants and drive-throughs, at stadiums, airports, zoos, high schools, elementary schools, and universities, on cruise ships, trains, and airplanes, at K-Marts, Wal-Marts, gas stations, and even at hospital cafeterias…”. There are many, many different types of fast food locations but comparatively few types of grocery store. If we want to help improve food access in low income areas we need to think of new ways to increase access which makes healthy food easier to get, taste better and cost less than fast food. We think this is possible. We think a Trader Joes Kiosk or Wholefoods Mobile could actually outsell McDonalds if done correctly.
In our video we illustrate many of the kinds of innovations grocers can use to increase their reach to low income areas. The solution we feature is just a starting point. As our ideas take hold, next generation designs will illustrate many more ways to bring healthy foods closer to consumers at still lower costs. With these changes and continued innovation over time, mobile fresh food will show how grocers can reclaim market share from fast food restaurants.