As a part of Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative, several major food retailers promised to open grocery stores near communities without supermarkets. Though their goals were valiant, all came up short of their promises. Why? Because grocers alone cannot solve the problems that create food deserts.
As a matter of fact, the real reasons grocery stores struggle to survive in poor communities is much more complicated than a lack of stores. In high-poverty areas, grocery stores often struggle with a large influx of food stamps at the beginning of the month (when they are distributed) but receive very little business at the end of the month. Plus, for families without a car, the US grocery culture is not a friendly one.
Most US grocery store designs and locations focus on middle-income family consumer patterns. Stores rarely change to fit neighborhood needs and/or preferences (ex: considering more walkable locations). Even when grocery stores are in high-poverty areas, the supply and demand for healthy foods don’t match. Poorer shoppers typically buy cheap, shelf-stable products that can last until the next month instead of items like produce.
Considering these are just a few of the financial hurdles stores face in low-income areas, it’s no wonder businesses follow shoppers in higher income brackets to better neighborhoods. Thinking more broadly about the issue, it’s easy to conclude that this issue is more than a food issue; it’s a problem of concentrated poverty and financially segregated communities.
Take, for example, Florida’s South St. Petersburg community that recently lost another grocery store in the Tangerine Plaza shopping center where not even a Neighborhood Walmart was able to survive. The crazy part is the community has a clear need for food, but the need alone can’t sustain a grocery store.
Here’s another important fact about the same community. This area has notoriously poor-performing schools. The Tampa Bay Times wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series called “The Failure Factories,” highlighting the serious problems with public schools in Pinellas County. In fact, the 3 closest public elementary schools to the Tangerine Plaza have received poor rankings for years. The highest ranking public school nearby, Perkins Elementary, is a highly sought after magnet school. Sadly, middle-income families who have won the lottery to attend the school frequently do not choose to live nearby.
Across the country, research shows that when school assignments force families to go to poor-performing schools, families that have the financial means leave those neighborhoods. So, considering the state of Pinellas County public schools, it is no wonder grocery stores and the economy of the community are struggling. The inability to retain a grocery store is a symptom of how school assignments in South St. Pete have further concentrated poverty and have created blighted conditions.
Florida needs to implement school choice programs that encourage middle-income families to stay in low-income neighborhoods like South St. Pete. But it will take more than a magnet school lottery to make a difference. Why? Only programs that let parents know with certainty that their children can attend a quality school will keep them in poorer neighborhoods. The good news is models for this type of program already exist, and research points to specific ways to structure programs to alleviate concentrated poverty.
Want to learn more about how school choice can help alleviate poverty and issues like food deserts? Keep reading here.
Image via ABC Action News Shot