Michelle Obama seeks to stamp out food deserts with the help of some grocery giants
July 20th, 2011
04:30 PM ET
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For the 23 million Americans who live in food deserts, Michelle Obama's announcement today may be a ray of sunshine. As part of her "Let's Move" campaign, the First Lady is joining forces with leaders from major retailers, foundations and small businesses committing to provide access to healthy, affordable food to people in underserved communities.

In an address broadcast live today on the White House's website, Mrs. Obama announced that nationwide food retailers including SUPERVALU, Walgreens, Walmart and other regional retailers will open or expand over 1,500 stores in areas that need it most.

"Food deserts" are defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as low-income census tracts where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. To qualify as a "low-income community," the tract must have "either a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the census tract's median family income."

A "low-access community," means that least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the tract population reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In rural areas, the distance is more than ten miles.

Find the food deserts in your own backyard

In addition to creating tens of thousands of jobs and serving approximately 9.5 million people throughout the country, the initiative seeks to stem the spread of childhood obesity. According to findings by White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, limited access to healthy food choices can lead to poor diets, higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases.

According to Mrs. Obama, it's a matter of shifting the power into the hands of parents. She said today, “We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local mini-mart, then all that is just talk."

The First Lady continued, "Let’s Move is about giving parents real choices about the food their kids are eating, and today’s announcement means that more parents will have a fresh food retailer right in their community – a place that sells healthy food, at reasonable prices, so they can feed their families the way they want.”

The SUPERVALU chain hopes to serve 3.75 million people and create more than 6,000 new jobs by opening 250 new Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years - a move that C.E.O. Craig Herkert thinks is just plain good business. He tells Eatocracy that the chain has made no secret of its desire to double the business done by its 1,280 existing stores, and the chance to align forces with the First Lady "ties in beautifully with the company’s focus to help America eat well."

He explained, "We have 400 Save-A-Lot stores in food deserts, and the business model works for us. It's the definition of a mom 'n pop operation. Most of the stores are independently owned, and these people put their life savings into a store that serves their community. It's not a fill-in store, even though it's one third the size of a traditional grocery store. It offers privately labeled goods and fresh produce at 40% less than the usual retail, and while this won't solve the problem, it's a start."

Herkert added, "Obesity spells trouble for this country. We have a role to play, and we're happy that Michelle Obama is letting us use her megaphone."

Also on the national scale, Walgreens has committed to converting at least 1,000 of its stores into food oasis stores, meaning that whole fruits and vegetables, pre-cut fruit salads and green salads as will now be available at these locations, which will serve an estimated 4.8 million people.

In January, Walmart joined the Let's Move campaign, announcing an extensive five-year plan to make its food healthier and more affordable and announced today that the chain is committing to opening or expanding 275 to 300 stores which will serve more than 800,000 people in food-challenged areas, adding 40,000 jobs to the workforce.

On a regional level, the California FreshWorks Fund, Philadelphia area's Brown’s Super Store, Alabama and Tennessee's Calhoun Grocer chain and Maryland's Klein’s Family Markets announced initiatives to expand access to healthy food and create or retain approximately 7,100 jobs.

Calhoun C.E.O. and president Gregory Calhoun says he is proud to join forces with the First Lady, issuing a statement today saying in part, "I know that it not just a commitment, but an obligation, to create opportunities for families in rural and urban areas of America...So I say 'LET’S MOVE!'”

Read more about food deserts and Michelle Obama's efforts to get America eating better

soundoff (21 Responses)
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    October 16, 2014 at 10:50 pm |
  2. CA

    Desserts is the correct spelling – you have deserts (like in a dry, arid environment). Please correct!

    August 14, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • Stacey

      I thought that first too, but then thought that the term 'food desserts' sounds odd.... and then I read the article and realized they meant that these areas are devoid of good groceries, a desert of sorts.

      August 16, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  3. abbyful

    I remember when the "food desert" story came out. A lot of the so-called food deserts were rural farming communities, those are not "food deserts", yes you have to drive more than x-miles to get food, but that's the way off life there. And many people grow their own food and/or hunt. People are NOT starving or lacking access to quality food.

    First thing they need to do is ACCURATELY define "food desert".

    And then, you can't force people to care about what they eat.
    I live in a nice suburban neighborhood; and when I go to the store, there's a very strong correlation between what's in the cart to the person pushing it. Lots of junk, convience food, soda, etc? Almost always a fat person. Lots of fresh foods, vegetables & fruits, fish/meat, eggs, olive oil, etc? Almost never a fat person.

    July 21, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Marla

    If the gov't really cared, they would end the subsidies for junk food and create subsidies for really healthy food. We're wasting a lot of farmland on crops to feed animals. It's best to avoid or reduce consumption of meat–but the meat we have shouldn't be from CAFOs, it should be free-range. It would be more expensive, but when you consider how small a serving of meat should be, and how few servings (if any) a person needs, there's really no need to subsidize corn and soy to feed animals.

    Food deserts exist because the people who live in these low-income areas aren't motivated to eat healthy food. People always want to talk about how expensive healthy food is–but if you do it right and take the time to cook (because you're motivated) it's really rather simple. And if you're in a rural area, get a garden. Inner city areas use vacant lots to grow vegetables as a co-op as well.

    July 21, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  5. Patrickk

    Americans are so disgustingly lazy. More than a few miles and you are too lazy to drag yourselves to a store. Puhleeze!

    July 20, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Walter

      This program is not about rural folk driving to get healthy food, hell they grow their own. It's about about urban ghetto folk to lazy to work to earn their food. Food deserts are the white herring or red elephant in the corner or something like that.

      July 20, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  6. Walter

    I was surprised to find that I live very close to one of these "Food Deserts", wow. It is for the most part a rural area and grocery stores are spread pretty thin. I don't think the area could sustain another grocery store, most families here have gardens, and orchards for all their fruit and vegetable needs, the 4H auction or home grown livestock for meat needs, and if they can't afford that there is a great hunting season. The local grocery store is sustained by the tourist from the nearby resort. Another one would probably wipe out the Mom and Pop stores that have lower prices then the chain grocery store and sell farm fresh products to us that don't have gardens.

    Obesity in the youngsters maybe 1 of 10 overweight, the adults are another story though.

    Just mandate lowering the prices. The price of food stuff goes up every time the price of gas remains high for a week but never comes back down.

    July 20, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  7. RedinAustin

    No offense, but the last thing we need is more big box sprall. Why don't we start farming coops? How about enouraging local, small, mom-and-pop places to start up by giving them tax breaks and incentives? Help them compete with lower prices so that they really make a community, not just a drive to walmart. What if Walmart etc. worked to assist these smaller businesses, like selling in bulk, or cheaper, to them and letting them pass on the goods and good prices to their customers instead of mowing them down and putting them out of business?

    July 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • RichardHead

      We already have chicken coops,Turkey coops and pig coops. I'd rather have Farm Co-Ops....just sayin.

      July 20, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Uninformed Obama Supporter

      This is such a good article...Can the government make ALL of my decisions for me? Tell me what to eat, where to buy it and what my kids should eat? Because in the final measure, I WANT big gov't to tell me how to live. I NEED big gov't to tell me how to live. I am not capable of thinking these things through for myself.

      July 20, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
      • unedumacated

        jus gib me mis welfare check so I cans eat real fast foods.

        July 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
      • Rbnlegend101

        So you object to grocery stores expanding into underserved areas on a volountary basis as government intrusion? Even though the CEO says it is a good business practice, and that he expects these stores will produce a profit and be a good use of his companies resources, you object to it on an anti-liberal basis. You would feel that the people who live in these communities if the government would leave them alone and let them stick with fewer options and no access to healthy food options, because the first lady supports it.

        You loonies will object to anything.

        July 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Rbnlegend101

      How would you start a farming co-op in an urban neighborhood?

      Many of these food deserts already have mom and pop businesses, but mom and pop don't set up a supermarket that brings in produce and meat and such. Mom and pop set up a convenience store that has twinkies and chips and microwavable burritos. That is why those areas are food desserts. Smaller stores only stock high volume, high margin items and that means junk food.

      Business wants to solve the problem without creating more government control. Sounds good to me. And if the first lady wants to endorse it, ok, fine. Pointless, but fine. It makes for another article on a slow news day.

      July 21, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  8. Truth

    Michelle Obama is a liberal stooge. Just sayin'.

    July 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • RedinAustin

      That's okay. You're just a stooge. Just sayin'.

      July 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  9. Puddle of Evil

    They'll expand there... and when they don't make expected profits in 6 months, they'll close the stores, or stock up on unhealthy items that sell and limit healthy items that don't. Sending in the giant food corps is probably just going to backfire, as much as I hate to say it. Unless they are willing to take a loss and actually stay open despite less than record sales.

    July 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Walter

      A federal subsidy will be established and the tax payer will keep the stores open even if people don't shop there.

      July 20, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
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