Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fighting Food Deserts with Social Enterprise

by Kari Ness Riedel, Director

One of the enterprises we are exploring at New Foundry Ventures is a social business that provides greater access to healthy foods while also creating jobs for those with barriers to employment. Many urban and rural areas are considered to be “food deserts”–that is, areas where residents have little or no access to healthy foods but have plenty of access to fast food and less healthy options. It may be hard to believe that food deserts exist when some neighborhoods boast a Safeway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Super Target all within a one mile radius. But, in many communities, fast food outlets and local bodegas that primarily sell liquor, cigarettes and canned food are the only convenient, affordable places to get food. Take a look at his map to see food deserts around the country.

We’ve all seen the stats on the alarming rate of obesity in our country–27 percent of adults and 19 percent of kids in the U.S. are obese, and these figures are worse for communities of color and low-income communities. Studies have shown direct links between food deserts and obesity and obesity-related diseases such as Type II diabetes. We need to improve food access and promote healthy eating to reverse these disturbing health trends. Remember all the work that went into fighting the “digital divide” from the early 90s? We need to engage in a similar fight to remove this “healthy eating divide” that is plaguing our communities today.

OK, enough doom and gloom, here’s the positive news…there’s already some amazing work being done across the U.S. to address these issues. Most efforts to improve food access are focused in three areas:

1. Get mainstream grocery stores into food deserts
2. Make bodegas, or corner stores, healthier
3. Provide alternative places to buy fresh, healthy food like farmer’s markets, produce markets, and mobile markets.

A great model for all three of these efforts is The Food Trust based in Philadelphia. Their work to bring affordable, nutritious food to all is starting to be replicated around the nation.
But access alone is not sufficient; behavior change is needed to shift how people shop, cook, and eat. There’s also some great work being done on this front through community cooking classes, nutrition education, backyard gardening lessons by organizations, such as Operation Frontline based in Washington D.C. and their local chapters throughout the U.S.

And, of course, it’s fantastic to see First Lady Michelle Obama bringing attention and energy to these issues through her Let’s Move campaign, along with the celebrity power provided by Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.

At New Foundry Ventures, we see a great opportunity for a social business that fights food deserts. We are currently doing due diligence on scalable, sustainable business concepts that would increase access to healthy foods in low-income communities; encourage families to shop, cook, and eat healthier meals; and create new jobs. We’ll be posting our findings over the coming weeks…so stay tuned! If you have ideas for fighting food deserts that you want to share with us or would like to learn more about our work in this area, please contact Follow me on Twitter at nesskari.

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