Food Deserts and Demand
The Kansas City Star published a 2,500 word front page story on Sunday that asked, “Why do so many stores east of Troost lack healthy food?” It wasn’t until the 11th paragraph that we got the answer: demand. This answer shouldn’t surprise anyone—we’ve known it for years.
The story also makes clear that it’s not that stores east of Troost Avenue “lack healthy food,” as the headline suggests. It’s that nutritious food isn’t presented immediately as one enters the store. We’re told, “Customers must walk back 100 feet before they encounter the produce section.” 100 feet.
There’s no bad guy in the story, either. Grocers admit to stocking what people want.
“You can pick apart any store that you want to on what they have or don’t have, but it’s about if people request these things or not,” [Sun Fresh store director Kim] Nagel says. “We’re going to give our customers what they want. Not just what looks good.”
Grocers aren’t fools. They’ll quickly learn what the community wants and work hard to provide it. All the fresh and brightly colored produce goes to waste if no one buys it, which is exactly the problem. Kansas City seems to think that building a new supermarket will address the problem. It won’t, as was addressed directly in recent USDA research. In fact, the Star’s own reporting echoes the research findings on food deserts: People do not necessarily drive to their closest grocery store. If they want something that isn’t available, they travel to where it is available.
I can’t get ground veal at the two grocery stores nearest me. I must travel to a third, more distant store. Am I the victim of a veal desert? Of course not.
The challenge of poor nutrition is very real, and addressing it will require a lot of work. That work should be focused on increasing demand rather than on counting kale and measuring miles. As the Star editorialized a few years ago about the announcement of the taxpayer subsidized Sun Fresh on Prospect:
[Kansas City Mayor Sly] James said building the Sun Fresh Market would be the “beginning of the revitalization of this entire corridor.” In truth, that’s been said before. For example, the current forlorn Linwood Shopping Center opened to rave reviews almost 30 years ago on the site of the demolished St. Joseph Hospital.
Yet the old grocery store there closed almost a decade ago. The center today is a reminder that investing in the East Side must overcome hurdles that don’t exist in other parts of the area. History shows that a lone project can’t really lift up an entire community. It takes a much bigger effort to do that.
The current “rave reviews” over some offerings at the new location will likely end if the demand does not keep up. And there are hurdles specific to the East Side when it comes to nutrition. Pretending otherwise is not just bad public policy; it is a disservice to residents.