As a critical community resource, food comes from a variety of sources, including convenience stores, restaurants, and gardens. However, as USDA researchers found, the supermarket is the most effective food distributor. In particular, large supermarkets serve as an important conduit for high-nutrition foods because they have economies of scale, affording greater variety and thus more healthy options.
Supermarkets typically operate according to a standard profit-based business model. As such, when food retailers consider potential locations, area food demand is a key consideration. "Demand" in this context refers to how much residents can afford to pay for food, so grocery stores tend to locate where local income (and thus demand) is highest. This model is so intuitive that few would question it. And the model often works well.
But in some cases it doesn’t. When it comes to communities, this approach can create a sizable advantage for higher-income areas by spawning, and then perpetuating, virtuous circles of healthy food access. Unfortunately, the supply of supermarket investment (and thus healthy foods) is not endless, so more investment in high-food demand communities naturally comes at the expense of lower demand communities. This fosters "a tale of two communities" dynamic where the more upscale areas enjoy bountiful food access via large supermarkets, but the less affluent experience declining nutrition prospects in the form of food deserts (neighborhoods where, despite having a population in need, few healthy food outlets decide to locate). As noted by US News, the food access barriers engendered by these deserts foster numerous additional cost of living hardships, compounding the situation for insecure households.
In systemic terms, this is a classic success to the successful situation. In such cases, an important resource (nutritious food supply via supermarkets) is allocated toward one entity (a higher-income community) over another (a lower-income community). As illustrated in the system map below, the benefits associated with greater food security increases the Community A’s income further over time, sustaining vigorous growth. Meanwhile, Community B has the opposite experience: a downward spiral that perpetuates stagnation.
When faced with this pattern, the highest leverage response rests in breaking the coupling between the high- and low-income communities so that they are not competing for the same resource. This has been achieved with a new, fledgling model: the nonprofit supermarket. By diminishing the profit motive, such nonprofit grocery stores would be free to locate more according to local nutritional needs, rather than resident purchasing power.
Building on our previous piece, this is one example of regional forces stacking the deck against food insecure households. In our next segment we will continue along this path by investigating another all-too-common distribution system flaw: food waste.