Food deserts are defined by their inhabitants lack of access to healthful food. More often than not, this access is defined by geographical proximity to a grocery store with healthy foods and fresh produce; however, the primary concern for many who live in food deserts is financial access to food.
Take, for example the Apples and Oranges Fresh Market, a grocery store opened in 2013 in Baltimore, owned by Michelle Speaks-March and her husband. The store was stocked with everything a food desert lacked– fresh produce and community resources like cooking classes–and none of the unhealthy foods typically consumed in food deserts, such as snack cakes and frozen ready-made meals. Apples and Oranges Fresh Market struggled to stay afloat for six months before finally closing. What Speaks-March found that her store did not match the demands of its consumers. What people wanted were the ready-made meals, the packaged snacks. The produce, though fresh, was priced too high and many could not afford it. For the same reason, no one wanted her cooking classes. Many living in high poverty tracts do not have the means to make a home cooked meal and must rely on pre-made meals and snacks for nourishment, not out of choice, but economic necessity.
Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, for his work on poverty and equality, specifically studying the way governments deal with famines, argues that the most famines are “an avoidable economic and political catastrophe.” Therefore, to eradicate food deserts, dismantling the economic barriers that perpetuate food deserts must be prioritized over geographical barriers.
Jeff Brown, a grocer from Southwest Philadelphia, was able to successfully open a chain of seven grocery stores in Philadelphia that tackled the main challenges faced by markets in low-income neighborhoods: funding, feasibility, community attachment, and sustainability. Not only was Brown able to offer realistic prices, he invested in in-store chefs to make healthful meals for customers at a feasible price, replacing the ready-made meals. Additionally, Brown invested in nutritionists, health clinics, credit unions, and social workers, all either free, or at extremely low costs. He was successful in offering the community resources in ways that the Speaks-Marches fell short. Rather than introducing new resources, Brown put community centers in his stores for neighborhood events, and lobbied SEPTA to place bus stops near his stores.
Ultimately, Jeff Brown was successful because he maintained a conversation with community to ensure that his grocery store provided what the neighborhood wanted at prices it could afford. He ensures the neighborhoods that his stores are for them, however they want it.