The Oasis Builders

The tactics used to solve the growing problem of food deserts across America are applicable to the goal of ending the nation’s financial services deserts.


A food desert is not the easiest term to define or understand. The generally accepted meaning is an area where access to healthy, affordable food is limited. Food deserts occur in urban areas, especially in low socioeconomic or minority communities, as well as in rural areas, where geographic disbursement poses challenges to access just about everything.

It might be hard to imagine such places exists here in America, but according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy Food Financing Initiative, more than 23 million Americans live in low-income areas that are more than one mile from a supermarket. Lack of personal transportation and the dependence upon public transportation or other assistance makes the more than 5,280-foot trek to the store even more difficult.

A diet composed of strictly non-perishable items such as microwave burritos, ramen noodles, diet cola, and Fluffernutters is a quick path to extra pounds, increased exposure to a variety of ailments, and a shortened lifespan. With such a bleak nutritional outlook for the children growing up in recognized food deserts, it’s no surprise that supplying fresh food for these areas is a key plank in the first lady’s Let’s Move! program.

Improving access to healthy, affordable foods is a key aspect in Michelle Obama’s effort to curb childhood obesity and change the way children think about nutrition. Let’s Move! led to the creation of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a $400 million partnership among the Treasury Department, Agriculture Department, Department of Health & Human Services, and the private sector. The initiative’s goal is lofty: Eliminate food deserts by the year 2017.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative launched in February 2010; unfortunately, to date the results have not matched its promises. In the past two years, the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores, has opened less than 10% of its promised 300 locations targeted at food deserts. National and regional grocery chains are also struggling to open new locations or convert the facilities of current locations to incorporate more fresh food.

Big Problems Benefit From Small Solutions

Limited assortment stores, such as Aldi, Save-A-Lot, and Dollar General, have all succeeded in establishing a footprint in areas deemed too small for larger super stores like Wal-Mart or Target. For these retailers, the map of food deserts serves as a blueprint for growth and expansion.

Aldi is a German grocery chain with more than 1,100 U.S. locations. Save-A-Lot, a subsidiary of the Minnesota-based grocery behemoth SuperValu (operator of regional marketplace leaders Acme, Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, Cub Foods, Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, and Shaw’s & Star) has more than 1,200 outlets. Both retailers share a business model the Food Marketing Institute classifies as limited assortment stores. They offer low-priced groceries with a limited assortment of center-store and perishable items.


A standard grocery store requires approximately 30,000 square feet. Super stores can take up as much as 150,000 square feet or more. Aldi and Save-A-Lot stores, on the other hand, both operate within a 15,000 square foot territory. Customers have access to produce, meat, dairy, and frozen food departments as well as shelves stocked with everything from flour to floor cleaner. However, the limited amount of floor space equals a limited inventory. A standard grocer stocks 30,000 or more separate products; limited assortment stores stock 2,000 or less. Instead of stocking five different brands of ridged potato chips and 28 flavors of canned soup, Aldi and Save-A-Lot primarily stock a private label, single size option of a best-selling product. These products often still come from leading manufacturers, but because Aldi and Save-A-Lot buy in bulk directly from the manufacturer, they can bypass the premium up-charge for the national brand and offer products at a 25-40% discount.

Aldi and Save-A-Lot’s growth prompted bargain retailer Dollar General to wade into the grocery business in the early 2000s. Having earned considerable success building stores in so-called retail deserts too small for Wal-Mart, it started launching Dollar General Markets that offer fresh produce, dairy, and meat options.

Credit Union Lesson:Credit unions don’t need a lot of space, a traditional branch, or a full array of products to make a difference in areas that lack access to financial services or financial services providers. The industry is experimenting with new types of branch models that require fewer resources to operate. Pair a remote teller or in-store branch with basic fruits and veggies (i.e., savings, checkings, auto loans, etc.) and teach your new members how to develop financially healthful habits.

Take It To The Streets

American poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher for the World Stacker of Wheat. He never mentioned anything about access to fresh tomatoes.

Chicago is a bustling metropolis, a financial center, and the crossroads of America. It is also, according to the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group, the home of three sizable food deserts. In these neighborhood clusters, nutritional challenges have led to increased average obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Despite the fact that many retailers have successfully targeted food deserts, there are still obstacles and risks.

In urban areas like Chicago, it can be difficult to find or afford the right location, which discourages national chains as well as independent operators.

Chicago is known for its community activism and organization. After reviewing reports that mapped out the Windy City’s food deserts, a handful of activists created a mobile produce market named Fresh Moves. Fresh Moves retrofitted a bus donated from the Chicago Transit Authority into a mobile produce section. Four days a week, the bus travels to more than a dozen locations in Chicago’s North Lawndale and Austin neighborhoods.

Other communities have taken cues from Fresh Moves and launched their own efforts. Truman Medical Centers sponsors a Healthy Harvest Mobile Market that tours urban Kansas City, MO, neighborhoods, offering fresh produce as well as nutrition and cooking classes. MoGro reaches out to the Santo Domingo pueblo communities in New Mexico with its mobile, temperature-controlled truck filled with affordable, healthy food. Similar programs include the Santa Clara & San Mateo Counties Mobile Produce Program and DC’s Mobile Market.

Credit Union Lesson:Don’t let the failure of others deter you from filling voids you identify in your surrounding communities. Hope Federal ($146.8M, Jackson, MS) and NorthCountry Federal ($389.6M, South Burlington, VT) are just two credit unions that opened a location in a financial services desert after bank branch closings restricted access to a traditional financial services provider. Every community deserves an FI, says NorthCountry CEO John Benoit. So build on the success, not the shortcomings, of others.

June 2, 2014

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