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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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Richard, as someone who has spent some time dealing with this issue, the key isn't really "access". That's the easy "business leader" answer: build more supermarkets and people will come to buy fresh foods.

To a degree, this is true. Those of us in urban redevelopment work have long preached "income density" (total household income per square mile or acre) as a measure for attracting grocery stores. This is because food is a necessity, and to a point, lower-income people have to spend a higher percentage of income on food than upper-income people just to buy calories. But even then, there's an issue.

That issue is "utilization". In this case, correlation does point toward causation: poverty is highly correlated with single parenthood, and working single parents often lack the time (and maybe the skills) needed to prepare meals made from basic fresh/whole ingredients.

Further, healthier fresh and whole foods (completely independent of local or organic status) generally cost more per calorie than calorie-dense, factory-made packaged foods or fast foods. The low-income single parent trying to stretch SNAP benefits or a paycheck will make sub-optimal but completely rational decisions to buy less-healthy boxed/prepared and fast foods for hungry kids.

So this tends to create a limited urban market for the fresh and whole foods that are typically perishable, and the grocery chain's "normal" inventory management model doesn't work. What works is the model of the c-store and dollar stores, which is why inner cities have so many of them.

At their roots, these problems probably require social-worker style intervention and training, and probably also some accompanying subsidy to incentivize healthier choices...such as a 2-for-1 bonus on SNAP benefits spent on fresh foods.

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