Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eliminating Food Deserts: A Policy Solution

Much has been made about food deserts over the last few years, and rightfully so.  These spaces in our cities and states are where healthy, affordable food is difficult or at times impossible to obtain.  Food deserts often correlate with low housing values and populations with marginalized SES.  Generally, the wealthier the neighborhood, the more choice its residents have for healthy eating.  Increasingly, more states and cities have been confronting the myriad of public health concerns that emerge from food deserts through a number of interesting policy solutions.  The Economic Research Service at the Department of Agriculture even has a Food Desert Locator for individuals and families to see how their neighborhood stacks up.  In this entry I will shed some light on one idea in particular that makes fresh, health, and affordable food available for children and families for who access has been lacking. 

One policy intervention that I have become increasingly smitten by are fresh food corner stores.  These have popped up in a number of areas and their appeal is palpable in these communities.  In Louisville, Kentucky, the Healthy in a Hurry Corner Stores started appearing in 2009; there are currently six stores operating throughout the city.  These stores stock fresh, affordable produce for residents of food deserts, essentially allowing a healthy choice to be an easy choice.  Indeed, many of those living in poor neighborhoods don’t have easy access to private transportation and so while they may want to eat healthy foods, it’s difficult for them to drive the long distances outside their neighborhood for more options.  Healthy in a Hurry Corner Stores enable good decision making through ease of use.  How were these stores funded?  In Louisville, city officials used an award of $7.9 million through a Health and Human Services Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 

Perhaps the leader in this healthy corner store movement is Philadelphia and the Philly organization The Food Trust.  Their Healthy Corner Store Initiative is funded through a range of support from philanthropy including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and state policy such as the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative which encourages the development of food retail in underserved Pennsylvania communities.  Through the leadership of Rep. Dwight Evans, the Fresh Food Financing Initiatives serves as a model grant and loan program stewarded by a public private partnership consisting of the Reinvestment Fund, the Food Trust, and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition.  The results speak for themselves.  According to the Food Trust, “the Fresh Food Financing Initiative has provided funding for 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties, creating or preserving more than 5,023 jobs and improving access to healthy food for more than half a million people.”  Through the success and wide publicity of Philadelphia’s efforts, other cities are jumping on board including Chicago and Seattle.  In addition the Healthy Corner Stores Network has been created as an umbrella site for the variety of initiatives across the country.  Many in government, social policy, and public health have asked will these cities attempts at eradicating food deserts work?  My contention is whether they completely eradicate food deserts is beside the point.  Indeed, there is no silver bullet in these matters.  What they are doing is bringing healthy and affordable produce to neighborhoods in dire need of these choices.  And that is a big step in the right direction.           

To read more about the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative as well as the Federal Fresh Food Financing Initiative see our issue brief, Aligning Resources and Results:  How Communities and Policymakers Collaborated to Create a National Program

To learn more about what state policymakers can do to increases access to affordable healthy food read our report, in partnership with Leadership for Healthy Communities, on Preventing Childhood Obesity or click here. 


  1. thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, lacking a grocery store with fresh meat and produce, becoming a food desert is a terrible circumstance facing many communities across America today.

    McKees Rocks PA has over come this challenge with two new grocery stores within walking distance and inside the community boundaries,
    Bottom Dollar Food at 1100 Chartiers Ave and Aldi at the Shoppes at Chartiers Crossing. Both have been a godsend for my neighbors and their neighbors. Never worrying about food makes for a more livable community