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Supermarkets don't go to 'food deserts'

The discount supermarket Grocery Outlet is opening a new store in Visitacion Valley, a San Francisco neighborhood recently labeled a "food desert" by the USDA.

Estella Moran lives in Visitacion Valley, a neighborhood near the southern border of San Francisco, and she needs to pick up some butter. Moran is about to head into a small market a few blocks from her house.

"And it’s going to be $4," she says. "Where if I go to FoodsCo, it’s going to be maybe $2."

FoodsCo is about two miles away, and Moran doesn’t always feel like driving there. She and many of her neighbors wish there was a bigger store closer to home.

"Right now I don’t even have food in the refrigerator, because I got to go such a distance to go grocery shopping," says local Toni Zernick. "It’s such a pain."

This might seem like an opportunity for a supermarket to have a monopoly. Sean Cash, Associate Professor with the Tufts University department of Agriculture, Food and Environment, says it’s not that simple.

"Sometimes I think there’s a bit of inertia for stores to overcome because they see that their competitors haven’t moved in. Then they suspect that their own analysis of the situation might be overly optimistic."

In other words: Grocery chains are wondering why no one is there already.

Cash says stores need to be sure there will be enough customers with enough money in a neighborhood.

"The amount of money that they have to sink into a new store, stocking a new store...it’s not something that they take lightly," Cash says.

Sometimes cities step in to convince stores to do business in these underserved neighborhoods. San Francisco recently got a Fresh & Easy to open in a food desert not far from Visitacion Valley. It closed after just three years.

"I think that from the outside looking in, it’s easy to say that it was an underperforming site for them," says Crezia Tano, Senior Project Manager at the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Tano says the reason the store didn’t do well was pretty basic: Shoppers didn’t want what Fresh & Easy was selling. They wanted more ethnic foods.

Resident Tavis Landry says he had a hard time shopping there.

"When they first opened they weren’t taking the system – the food stamp system – and a lot of the people in these communities are using that system," says Landry.

This spring, a new store will try its hand here in Visitacion Valley. It’s a discount store called Grocery Outlet. Melissa Porter, President of Marketing, says the store has a strategy for success in neighborhoods like this one.

"Each one of our stores is independently owned and operated," Porter says. "So all that store owner has on his mind is serving his community."

As for places still pining for a grocery store, Sean Cash says underserved neighborhoods might consider setting up a food co-op. That’s what some residents in Baltimore did. Only a few months later, a supermarket came in, and the co-op closed.

"And (the co-op) claimed that they were very happy to do so," says Cash. "That really their whole purpose was to provide access to food and to show that the neighborhood could support a supermarket."

Sometimes stores just need to know you’re in the market for them.

Below is a screenshot of Visitacion Valley on the USDA's interactive food desert map.

 

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