For all of the talk about food deserts—areas that lack access to nutritious and affordable foods—some say that landscape is more like a swamp.
Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in November 2017 reveals that the term “desert” implies a lack of food, while the real problem is too many fast food places that contribute to the problem of obesity in this country, creating a more swamp-like atmosphere. The researchers concluded that encouraging healthy food retailers to have a presence in underserved areas considered fast food “swamps” can help increase healthier communities and rein in obesity problems.
Winsight Grocery Business contributor Phil Lempert cited that research in a recent newsletter on his website, noting that this different perspective has changed the conversation about obesity and retail marketplaces. He observes that “choosing fast food sometimes seems like the easiest way to be fed,” due to the affordability and convenience of QSRs located in underserved areas.
Lempert underscores the researchers’ point that retailers, including supermarkets, can be incentivized to fill the gaps, or as the case may be, turn the swamp into a more level field. Supermarkets can offer several unique solutions, Lempert notes, from offering the services of in-house dietitians who can work with families and individuals to positioning their foodservice-at-retail areas as true competitors to fast-food restaurants. He specifically advises grocers in lesser-served areas of the country to emphasize their offerings that are budget-friendly but convenient and healthy.
Lempert offered other suggestions for grocers who can turn food swamps into food oases. Chief among those tips is having customers taste for themselves. “Supermarkets should be sampling! They should have their wait staff walking throughout the supermarket and offering shoppers samples of their healthy offerings as they shop—and if possible, even give them a coupon redeemable for a healthy appetizer or dessert,” he says.
Educating consumers about what and where foodservice areas are within the store is also crucial. “Shoppers are somewhat of a captive audience, but many have never even gone into the grocerant, so the grocerant should go to them. Also working with the front end, the grocerant menu should be at the cash register for display while people are waiting to check out and miniature versions stuffed in grocery bags,” he says.
Such efforts can help grocers play a role in combating obesity and providing shoppers with healthy, affordable foods in or near their communities. Meantime, the researchers who published their article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health say that grocers are particularly well suited for that role: “Incentives should be linked to public health goals in ways that give priority to stores that also commit to health-promoting retail strategies, such as through placement, promotion, and pricing.”
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