05/07/2015 07:50 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2015

Eliminating Food Deserts Will Take A Marriage of Private And Public Enterprise

The United States Department of Agriculture donates commodities through programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Progra
The United States Department of Agriculture donates commodities through programs such as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which the San Antonio Food Bank (SAFB) packages and palletizes them for fast distribution from its San Antonio, TX., headquarters, on Monday, October 31, 2011. SAFB is a non-profit organization that serves as a clearinghouse by receiving and storing truckloads of donated food, produce, and other grocery products, they then distributes these items to over 500 service agencies that help people in need. ᅢ까タᅡワWe couldnᅢ까タᅡルt do what we do without our partnership with USDAᅢ까タᅡルᅢ까タᅡン said President and CEO Eric Cooper. He continues, ᅢ까タᅡワWe are privileged in partnering (with the USDA) to feeding kids, through the summer, with the Summer Food Service Program, and throughout the year, with the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP). Then in our approach to feeding seniors, we partner with USDA in the Commodities Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and the Senior Farmerᅢ까タᅡルs Market (Nutrition) Program. And then work to bring all our (needy) parties together with our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Outreach. You know, once families have access to food we believe it is important to educate them. Through the support of the SNAP-Education Program we are able to educate them during their time of need. With this comprehensive approach we are really able to get the right food, at the right amount, at the right time, to needy families throughout our community ᅢ까タᅡモ which allows us to feed the fifty-eight thousand we do, each week.ᅢ까タᅡン SAFB serves 16 counties in Southwest Texas and states, ᅢ까タᅡワNearly one out of every four children and one out of every five adults in Southwest Texas lives in poverty and has difficulty meeting basic nutritional needs.ᅢ까タᅡン According to SAFB, sixty-five percent of the people requesting emergency food have children. ᅢ까タᅡワAdditionally, the senior citizens and those living on a fixed income generally have limited funds for a consistent grocery budget.ᅢ까タᅡン San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the nation with surrounding farms and ranches near its rivers and water supplies. When available they provide fresh surplus produce. Other commodities come from the food industry and manufacturers. The major food brand companies that for various reasons have surplus commodities donate it to SAFB. Texas farmers supply fresh produce to their Fresh Produce Program. Public donations come in the form of money, food, volunteer time, and advocacy. Their fleet of trucks pickup and deliver food as needed. USDA photo by Lance Cheung. www.fns.usda.gov/fns/www.fns.usda.gov/snap/www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/programs/tefap/

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When Neelam Sharma moved with her family to South Los Angeles from London in 1996, the lack of access to healthy foods was a personal problem: She had two young kids to feed and not a Ralphs or Wegmans supermarket in sight.

Sharma began volunteering at Community Services Unlimited, an organization that provides low-cost healthy foods to the underserved community of South Los Angeles, which sits in a county with the highest rate of food insecurity in the country. She now works as the organization’s executive director, expanding its reach through funding from government and private sector programs.

Like many organizations of its kind, CSU is working working to eliminate “food deserts” -- mostly poor areas where fresh, whole foods are hard to find. The problem of food deserts may seem to have a simple solution: open more stores. And, indeed, there are many organizations and government programs to help incentivize grocery stores to open in underserved areas. But for-profit stores struggle to stay open.

One reason food stores proliferate in the suburbs and struggle in urban areas has to do with zoning codes: Supermarkets are usually required to provide parking lots based on store square footage, nearly doubling the parcel of land required to open up shop -- an expensive or logistically complicated proposition in many urban areas. What’s more, small grocery stores often require higher markups to make them profitable. Add to that a lack of competition to keep pricing down, and you’ve got a store with prices unsuitable for the local population.

“Just living in the neighborhood, I noticed there’s such high turnover,” Sharma explained. “These stores stay open for six months or a year and then close. There’s a lot of monetary incentive for stores to open in a neighborhood -- reinvestment money and tax breaks available. But what’s the incentive to stay?”

One example of this phenomenon is the British grocery giant Tesco. The company entered the U.S. market in 2007 with a plan to open stores under its Fresh & Easy brand, with the express purpose of selling healthier fare in small convenience stores. By 2013, Fresh & Easy had filed for bankruptcy, and was sold to a second parent company. Last month, the chain's new management announced the closing of 50 of the 167 stores currently in operation -- including a location that served a food desert in South Los Angeles.

By contrast, organizations like CSU are committed to staying a part of the community. Sharma said the organization gets grant money from several sources, including both the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and Kellogg’s charitable arm, to fulfill this purpose.

CSU and organizations like it also benefit from a changing landscape. As of 2011, the HHS offered $400 million a year in grants to businesses and projects that are aimed at increasing healthy, affordable food to poor populations. The stick to HHS’ carrot: a provision of the 2014 Farm Bill requires retailers who accept SNAP benefits to provide at least seven types of whole, “staple” ingredients, meaning protein, fruits and vegetables, or dairy products, and at least three different categories of perishable food at all times.

CSU was just able to purchase its first location after decades of renting in South LA’s Paul Robeson building. Sharma says the organization even beat out a last-minute cash offer from Whole Foods, which is attempting to expand to smaller, more affordable markets. That's a sign to Sharma that attitudes are changing, and that small NGOs like hers are seen as a sustainable option.

Whole Foods declined to comment on whether it was exploring sites in South Los Angeles, but Robin Rehfield Kelly, a representative for the company, did say that healthy food access was a core value and mission for the supermarket chain, which has a 501(c)(3) foundation dedicated to this very issue. She pointed out that stores in similarly disadvantaged communities in Detroit and Chicago were thriving.

As nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies and government initiatives sharpen their focus on food insecure neighbors, a healthier landscape may emerge across the country.

“In the past few years, a variety of public and private sector initiatives have cropped up to address issues of access and affordability when it comes to healthy foods, particularly among disadvantaged populations,” said Sara Bleich, associate professor of human nutrition and health, behavior and society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Taken together, if these efforts are successful, then in 10 years more Americans will have access to affordable and healthy food near their homes.”

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