Government, Real Estate, Restaurants/Food

A Developer’s Approach to Solving Food Deserts – Part One

How do you solve the problem of food deserts?  Income levels, education, grocery store locations, mobile markets, and transportation all play a part in the solution.

The USDA defines what’s considered a food desert as a “low-access community”(read lack of transportation) with at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population residing more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

You can view the location of food deserts with the USDA Food Desert Mapping Tool.  Here’s a screenshot of Greensboro’s food deserts as last updated and published online.

USDA Food Desert Map of Greensboro, NC

USDA Food Desert Map of Greensboro, NC

We’ve been able to lessen the food desert areas with grocery store projects in the last few years including Li Ming Global Mart at High Point Rd/Holden, Save-A-Lot at Yanceyville/Cone, and other grocery stores in the city.  The Wal-Mart projects at Cone/29 and S. Elm/I-840 have provided grocery options in prior food deserts as well.

Here’s an aerial map of Greensboro, NC that my company Kotis Properties produced, showing all grocery stores with a 1-mile ring around them.  The blue area is what remains of food desert areas outside the ring.  It also factors in current USDA food desert data that varies from the online tool above.  My market research staff create tools like this to help explain the Greensboro market to grocery stores that we hope to recruit to the area.

Aerial Map of Greensboro, NC - 1 mile rings around Grocery Stores, Blue indicates Food Deserts

Aerial Map of Greensboro, NC – 1 mile rings around Grocery Stores, Blue indicates Food Deserts

You will note that the bulk of the food desert areas are in Northeast Greensboro.  It visually demonstrates what people in East Greensboro have been saying for the past few years – that they want and need grocery stores.  One of our new projects – at the intersection of Wendover and the Outer Loop (I-840) should help to solve the food desert problem in that area.  Additional solutions may be Phillips Avenue or South Elm/Lee.  The challenge is convincing grocery stores to locate there as they tend to focus on higher profit and lower risk potential locations (more in a future post).

It’s interesting to note that both UNCG and Bennett College are both considered food deserts.  That’s something I plan to explore further.

In the absence of a full blown grocery store, people tend to shop in convenience stores or dollar stores.  Those often offer less variety and at a higher cost.  However stores like Sheetz have broken the mold with a much broader offering.

There are three solutions to food deserts – transportation (including low cost cars), income level of the residents, and close proximity of groceries.  

One novel approach is the idea of bringing groceries to people via a mobile food truck concept.  There is a farm food truck concept in Raleigh called LoMo Market.  It makes around 40 stops per week in different areas.  NC A&T could work on something like this as well given that they have a large University farm.

LoMo Market Trailer and Truck

LoMo Market Trailer and Truck

Inside of the LoMo Market Trailer with Webpage Scheduling

Inside of the LoMo Market Trailer with Webpage Scheduling

I saw an expanded version of this concept outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina.  A caravan of farm trailers were pulled by trucks to various neighborhoods on certain days.  The various trailers included produce, meat, fish, and general merchandise.  The idea of a mobile grocery store or farmers market is an immediate solution to food deserts.

A Mobile Farmers Market in Argentina - Trailers Pulled by Trucks to a Neighborhood

A Mobile Farmers Market in Argentina – Trailers Pulled by Trucks to a Neighborhood

Meat and Eggs at the Argentine Mobile Farm Trailers

Meat and Eggs at the Argentine Mobile Farm Trailers

In the short term, the city should explore measures designed to encourage grocery store development, farmer’s markets and mobile farm trucks in food desert areas.  It should also look at the long term solution of educating and empowering people in those areas.


11 thoughts on “A Developer’s Approach to Solving Food Deserts – Part One

  1. Excellent points Marty and I know you’ve been one of the few developers with enough insight to invest in east Greensboro for a number of years. I hope it pays off big for you and know it will be good for our community to have more of the types of properties you own and operate. One point I do want to make is that these things take years, I know you’ve been working on your east Greensboro investments for several years. I don’t think a lot of people understand how long of a process it can become.

    • I agree Billy. There are some short term objectives that can be accomplished, but this is a long term project. One of my redevelopment projects started in the early 90s and I’m still working on new aspects of it.

  2. Jeff Deal says:

    Since addressing the food desert issue is one of of her priorities, maybe the First Lady should push the Department of Defense to open civilian-accessible commissaries (supermarkets) in these areas.They appear to know how to successfully (profitably?) manage the ones on the military bases. The product offerings would be cheaper/healthier/more extensive than what’s available in the C-stores, and more readily accessible than what farmer’s markets could reasonably offer.

    • While I’m not a big fan of government run businesses, perhaps opening up the grocery supply chain and/or providing guidance to grocery stores/co-ops in food deserts might have some significant value. Greater coordination between government run enterprises and agencies.

      • Jeff Deal says:

        I share your distaste for government-run businesses, but prefer them to the usual do-nothing, hand wringing, photo-op laden blather that emanates from DC these days. I would think that a co-op solution would need a franchise affiliation (IGA or =) or other supply chain assistance to have a broad (and economical) enough product line to adequately serve their target demographic.

      • Actually Jeff, IGA is one of several options. One of the nation’s largest independent grocery wholesalers, MDA, is located in Hickory, IGA has a distribution warehouse in Charlotte and another independent grocery distributor is located in Raleigh. There are already successful grocery co-ops in Burlington, Chapel Hill and a few other NC cities and the RCC is already forming about 2 blocks from my home. All these groups are already discussing purchasing as a group the way the old Greensboro based Bi-rite co-op once did:

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  4. Better than DOD commissaries would be if the First Lady or any level of government right down to the Greensboro City Council would work to establish more locally owned co-ops. I can’t speak for Marty but my guess is a locally owned co-op would be a better renter in the long term than any chain grocer or big box retailer as the co-ops are bound to the communities where they are located. No one has to give away money to these co-ops, just assist in development and make start-up loans available so that developers like Marty are free to take the risk to invest their money in areas where they might not otherwise invest.

    And the co-ops are proven to be better for the community as the profits are reinvested locally.

    Just plain old fashioned private, market driven capitalism with government showing the poor how it’s done. Hand ups, not hand outs. And no competition from government with the private sector.

    On another note: a lot of the problem here in the USA is the way politicians consider real estate development and economic development to be one in the same. As Marty well knows, sometimes real estate development can be an economic development tool for a community but here in Greensboro it has long been practiced as a means of increasing the tax base under the guise of economic development. Until our politicians and economic planners learn to see each individual project for what it is and is not, we stay stuck in the same trap with little incentive for private developers to spend private money in the areas we call food deserts and other depressed areas.

    After all, compared to myself, Marty has deep pockets but Marty can’t save all of east Greensboro on his own. But the City of Greensboro could if they had a real economic development policy.

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