First Lady Teams With Grocers to Bring Stores to 'Food Deserts'

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Michele ObamaAs part of a plan to help remedy America's "food deserts," First Lady Michelle Obama announced on Wednesday that she is helping several of the country's largest food retailers -- including retail giant Walmart (WMT) -- expand their operations into underserved areas. The program, part of her "Let's Move!" campaign, is designed to increase access to high-quality nutritious food.

At first blush, the term "food deserts" brings to mind a blasted, empty wasteland, with nary a restaurant in sight. In truth, however, these at-risk areas often have several food options -- as long as one is in the mood for high-density, highly caloric fast food. But for consumers in search of healthier options like fresh fruits and vegetables, many urban and rural neighborhoods lack basic supermarkets. And, when grocery stores are convenient to those neighborhoods, their wares are often overpriced and of low quality.

In addition to expanding access to fresh food, the First Lady's program is designed to create jobs. One of her proposed partners, Supervalu (SVU), has announced that its proposed expansion will create 6,000 jobs. Another, Brown's SuperStore, estimates that it will add a further 325 workers. The biggest promise, however, came from Walmart, which claimed that its new and expanded stores will employ 40,000 more people.

Fresh Face on an Old Solution

Michelle Obama is hardly the first person to identify the connection between poverty and poor nutrition. For years, health experts have noted a direct link between easy access to fast food and a variety of health problems, including obesity and diabetes. According to a recent analysis from the Food Research and Action Center, the lack of grocery stores, the high cost of good food, and easy availability of fast food have combined to create an ideal environment for poor nutrition in low-income areas.

The Obama solution also isn't as revolutionary as it sounds: New York City's Green Carts program, a public-private partnership unveiled in 2008, has deployed more than 400 fresh produce carts to many of the city's lower-income neighborhoods. In addition to vastly increasing access to fresh food among the city's poorest residents, Green Carts has also created hundreds of jobs. The program has since been studied by other cities -- including Chicago and Philadelphia -- that are also hoping to create some oases in their own food deserts.

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However, while the First Lady's plan is similar to earlier food desert solutions, it goes a lot further. According to a White House press release, the proposed 1,500 stores that it will create will lead to tens of thousands of jobs and will bring fresh produce to more than 9.5 million people who currently do not have sufficient access to healthy food.

Expanding Stores, Contracting Waistlines

While some retailers, Walmart in particular, are already strongly entrenched throughout the country, others see the First Lady's program as an opportunity to move into new areas. Gregory Calhoun, CEO/President of Calhoun Foods, a chain that operates throughout Alabama and Tennessee, noted that his company will now be able to expand in Alabama: "For the last two years, I've been trying to get into the Birmingham market. With the help of the First Lady, I'll be able to do that with pride."

Meanwhile, drugstore chain Walgreens (WAG) plans to offer more whole fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods in about 1,000 locations.

Jeffrey Brown, President and CEO of Philadelphia-based Brown's SuperStores, noted the close relationship between food retailers and the communities that they serve: "When you have an independent entrepreneur, their interest in their own communities is paramount." According to Brown, this initiative will help inspire creative solutions to the nation's obesity crisis: "Over the next five years, I foresee hundreds of grocery entrepreneurs jumping in with solutions."

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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