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Solving food deserts has been an increasing topic of discussion for the last few years. Today’s food systems do not serve food deserts properly, and tend to leave entire communities in urban environments without access to fresh, healthy food. How can we solve this problem through local food?

First, let’s quickly make sure we have a working definition of the term “Food Desert”:

A food desert is a region where access to food retailers stocking fresh, affordable food options is lacking or non-existent. According to the USDA, a food desert must meet a certain threshold of poverty, and at least 500 people or ⅓ of the population must reside more than one mile from a large grocery store. 

The term itself evokes the image of a barren, rural landscape, without people and without food. However, we know this is not the truth. 500 000 residents in Chicago and 750 000 residents in New York City are living in a food desert. Urban food deserts are the result of a lack of infrastructure, socio-economic status, and cultural attitudes. If there are 2.3 million individuals in the USA that do not have access to fresh food - what are we doing wrong? 

To better understand the issue, research by Widener explores a framework that describes what leads to food deserts and more broadly, food inaccessibility. 

The combined required variables to food accessibility are:

  • Availability: the quantity of stock
  • Accessibility: the distance between individual and food
  • Accommodation: the ability to accept all payments (SNAP and WIC, credit and debit, online payments)
  • Affordability: the price relative to income levels
  • Acceptability: the social awareness of all consumer-types and producer-types

Food deserts present a unique case: it is not a spatially-explicit problem. Each factor plays into the next. You cannot solve accessibility without having considered availability, affordability, accommodation, and acceptability. It is a multi-layered problem.

Currently, some projects are working towards a solution for food deserts. Mobile markets and produce trucks allow fresh and affordable (or free) produce to reach communities that need them most. However, they must be funded and subsidized to operate. Government intervention such as legislation can create an impact on the inclusivity of grocery stores and retailers in these areas. For example, The Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program encourages and helps smaller retailers to stock and present healthy fruits and vegetables to residents. Yet, if there are no grocery stores in the community, this cannot resolve the problem. The introduction of not-for-profit grocery stores, such as Fare and Square, that offer discounts to members below the federal poverty level is a possible solution. However, funding seems challenging to sustain.

Other initiatives such as urban farming and community gardens help raise awareness about the importance of eating healthy and encourages community members to choose alternative options. Yet, parameters such as production yield, cost and viability of the land, and community labor factor into the productivity and effectiveness of these systems. 

The underlying problem remains: food deserts need a sustainable and profitable solution to make a difference, as relying on funding can limit the long-term viability of programs.

As a whole, there are two problems that need to be addressed: 

  • Farmers and food producers need more sales channels 
  • Consumers need access to healthy food 

This means a potential solution to food deserts is modern direct-to-consumer (DTC) relationships between farmers and consumers, such as online farmers markets and food hubs. Imagine an aggregated online market that lists various different products produced and availability in a specific region. The system would directly connect farmers and consumers to arrange pricing and deliveries so that there are no operating costs.

This method cuts out the middle aggregator and instead creates a DTC relationship that offers fresh food to those who need it and allows for new sales channels for small-scale food producers. Benefits of such a system include:

Better Price for Consumers

A common misconception of local food is that it is too expensive. The higher price of local food takes into account the smaller production yield and the cost of distribution. If these food producers were to sell in a system that ensures large orders to fewer pickup locations, the cost would adjust relative to the order size, and become more affordable for everyone. Partially, this would be because food producers would be able to bulk discount large orders to one area. This would incentivize individuals to make larger orders and get their neighbors to order with them! 

Additionally, online systems can accept alternative payment methods. Accepting systems such as government-funded supplemental nutrition programs (WIC and SNAP in the USA), creates an opportunity for users to get access to healthy food and supports small-scale food producers by injecting the funds back into the community. A DTC relationship ensures the highest quality food for the lowest price available, while still assisting in the livelihood of producers.

Collaboration Between Producers

Competition isn’t the biggest challenge of a local food economy. In the USA, small-scale farms that market themselves as "local", make up 7% of all the farms nationally. In an industry where they have to compete with large players, the collaboration is beneficial. 

Working together would allow local farmers to:

  • Get a sales and marketing force: Individually marketing smaller businesses takes time and effort. By collaborating, there is more time focused on building one brand versus many.
  • Increased distribution network: Distribution is the most expensive and complicated aspect of local food. Working with many different suppliers allows for reduced emissions, cheaper costs, and efficient loading of vehicles. This can result in fair costs for consumers. 
  • Brand Support and Growth: An association with established food hubs and other aggregation businesses increases the likelihood of brand recognition and reflects positively on businesses involved.

The collaboration between food suppliers allows for better business for the producers, yet immensely benefits the consumers also. Consumers get access to a wider variety of products from one source, a fairer distribution cost, more extensive delivery areas, and all the while, supporting their local communities. 

We need to stop thinking of a food desert as a barren, rural area without food and without people. It is instead an opportunity to link local food suppliers to their community members and create a true win-win!