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Why food deserts require more than just supermarkets

Fresh veggies. February 29, 2016 Category: FeaturedMediumMethod
The solution for America’s food desert problem seems like an obvious one: Throw a grocery store or two in the mix and the problem should be solved, right?

If it were that simple, 23.5 million Americans wouldn’t be living in them.

“This is a problem that begs to be addressed holistically,” said Lauren Vague, program and development coordinator at UpLift Solutions, a Westville, N.J.-based nonprofit with a holistic approach to tackling food deserts across the country.

“Food deserts are really resource deserts,” said Vague, adding that food deserts often plague low-income, marginalized communities that also have poor school systems, high unemployment rates and little access to health services.

UpLift’s approach is three-pronged: Open new supermarkets or turn around failing ones, implement their own brand of healthcare services and provide financing for underfunded community institutions like community development corporations and healthcare operators.

That process begins with an essential (yet often overlooked) first step — research the specific location and figure out exactly what the people in the affected community need. What they don’t need, Vague said, is outsiders coming in and telling them what they should have. Community engagement is key.

"This is a problem that begs to be addressed holistically. Food deserts are really resource deserts."
Lauren Vague

“If there’s not awareness surrounding the opening of a store, it’s just not going to work. We engage local government officials to make sure they’re on board,” Vague said. “We do a lot of engagement around schools and places of worship.”

Targeting churches, synagogues and mosques — all key community hubs — is crucial for building community support. If UpLift helps open a grocery store in a largely Muslim community, that grocery store must have halal meats.

But UpLift’s solution doesn’t always work out. There are plenty of speed bumps that frequently present themselves in the process. First off, building these holistic plans isn’t exactly cheap.

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“We do a feasibility study up front and be honest with you,” Vague said. That means looking into local school systems, existing industry, competition, median income, culture mix — the works. “It scares people away because it’s expensive and it’s on their dime,” she said. “But we need to know what we’re going into.”

For example, UpLift was approached by a Chester organization to develop a plan for relieving local food access issues. The potential client wanted a large supermarket, but upon conducting their feasibility study, UpLift came back with a plan for a supermarket half the desired size. No deal — they wanted to do it their way.

There’s no unilateral approach to alleviating the myriad socioeconomic distresses found inside food deserts, Vague said. But by engaging those communities, gauging their actual needs and then addressing their systemic socioeconomic inequalities, we can inch closer toward being able to provide people with the basic needs they deserve.

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