Supply-Side Experiment in Food Desert Goes Bust

Jim Scanlon at his Newport News store. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Poor Jim Scanlon. He bought into the conventional wisdom that food deserts are a supply-side problem — an unwillingness of grocery store operators to locate in inner cities. Hoping to remedy that deficiency, the idealistic former Ukrop’s executive opened Jim’s Local Market in a low-income neighborhood in Newport News in May 2016.

Now, a year and a half later, he’s closing the store, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Explains Scanlon: “It’s just that the sales are not there, and the profitability is not there. It’s not working out.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Food deserts are a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. Poor people, like many Americans, just don’t like broccoli, kale, quinoa, cauliflower, or other trendy superfoods that go in and out of fashion among the cultural elites. Pleasures in life in the inner city are far and few between, and the poor, also like many Americans, gravitate to food that provides immediate gratification… Which means they gravitate to processed food loaded with salt, sugar and fat that tastes good. Go into any convenience store or corner grocery in the east end of Richmond and you’ll see aisles stocked with snack foods and soft drinks — the kind of food people are willing to spend their money on.

If you want poor people to eat healthier food, putting healthy food in front of them won’t work. You can literally give away the carrots and squash, and many people won’t eat them. Not only have they not acquired the taste, they have lost the cultural knowledge of how to cook them.

Tricycle Gardens in Richmond was launched to create urban gardens and create a supply of healthy vegetables that poor, inner-city residents should include in their diets. The idea behind the nonprofit was the old give-a-man-a-fish-and-you-feed-him-for-a-day, teach-a-man-to-fish-and-you-feed-him-for-a-lifetime philosophy. The group built small, “key-hole” gardens that anyone could install in their backyard and reap a bounty of vegetables. I don’t know if Tricycle Gardens had many takers, but let’s just say, I have seen little evidence of a horticultural revolution sweeping through Richmond’s inner city. The last time I communicated with the group — it’s been a couple of years — its leaders were recognizing that they had to work on the demand side. The outfit was talking about giving cooking classes to teach how to make yummy dishes out of brussel sprouts, and it was partnering with local schools to get kids involved with raising garden vegetables, learning about nutrition, and excited about eating healthy food. If we want poor Virginians to eat more healthy food, that’s the kind of slow, plodding change we need to undertake.

Another well-meaning group is investing a grocery store in Richmond’s East End. The building is now under construction. With all the gentrification taking place in the East End, that venture may find enough customers among young urban professionals to sustain itself. Otherwise, it will likely meet the same fate as Scanlon’s Newport News enterprise. Simply put: The enterprise is addressing the wrong problem.

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13 responses to “Supply-Side Experiment in Food Desert Goes Bust

  1. Of course it’s a demand side problem. The free market will supply goods that people want to buy.

    It’s known that poor health decisions are inversely proportional to income and wealth over large population samples. Do some wealthy people smoke? Of course. Are some fat cats truly fat? Yes. However, statistically speaking, obesity and tobacco use are more common among less affluent Americans than among more affluent Americans. Jim Bacon thinks this is partly due to a loss of the cultural knowledge of how to cook carrots. I have my doubts. I think it reflects a lack of hope more than a lack of culinary skills.

    But what to do? For all the grief she got Michelle Obama had the right idea – start serving healthy meals to youngsters in school. Replace the nasty assed mystery meat burger and tater tots with grilled chicken breast and carrots. Serve low sugar ketchup or no ketchup at all. Over time the kiddies will start to expect and then enjoy healthy meals. My guess is that kids who eat healthy turn into adults who eat healthy.

    Of course, watching the billionaire President of the United States waddle from one double bacon cheeseburger to the next while claiming exercise saps vitality and energy doesn’t help. Or maybe it could. Make up number stickers … “Resist Trump, Eat Healthy”.

    • re: ” I have my doubts. I think it reflects a lack of hope more than a lack of culinary skills.”

      yup… the “favorite food” in a lot of rural America is apparently beer, cigarettes and opioids…… broccoli loses out to beer – every time!

      and it’s funny – ever time the discussion talks about food desserts and food “insecurity” in inner cities.. it almost never talks about a similar “supply-side”problem in our rural areas..

  2. There’s an element of survival biology in this, as well. When a body has an uncertain pattern of getting its next meal, it will both crave calorie-dense foods and then slow its metabolism so that those calories are burned more slowly, sustaining the body for an unknown duration. There is more at work than an unsophisticated palate or lack of cooking skill.

    • While your point may be true it doesn’t address the issue of so-called food deserts and the question of whether these deserts are supply-driven or demand-driven. You describe the case of a body being uncertain of getting its next meal. You leave open the question as to what percentage of people living in so-called food deserts are in that situation. The US Census seems to show that a majority of people classified as poor have ongoing acceptable access to food. While this is of little solace to those who truly lack access to food it does beg the question of why healthy foods are not sold in areas where the vast majority of people may be poor but do have regular access to food.

      Here are some statistics:

      Ninety-six percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.

      Some 83 percent of poor families reported that they had enough food to eat.

      Some 82 percent of poor adults reported that they were never hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money to buy food.

      Are these percentages too low? Yes. Are these percentages high enough to dispel the idea that healthy food is not consumed because too many people are uncertain of getting their next meal and therefore craving calorie dense food? Also yes.

      I much prefer a Snicker’s Bar to an apple. If there were no difference between the two regarding future effects I’d always eat the Snicker’s Bar. But I know there is a difference and I know my future will be worse if I regularly consume Snicker’s Bars. So, I eat the apple. My key assumption is around a long and happy future. If I was miserable and expected to stay that way I’d worry a lot less about the future. If I didn’t think I was going to live much longer I’d take the candy bar. There’s a reason that people on death row eating their last meal order fried chicken and pie instead of steamed fish and broccoli. The hopelessness of poverty causes a lot of dysfunctional decisions including, in my opinion, not worrying enough about the future impacts of today’s food choices.

      • I’m convinced that, under duress, biology will trump a well-intended offer of healthy food.

        100% of parents, poor or not, will be ashamed to admit that their children have gone hungry, and disinclined to answer that question honestly, if the children have. Denial.

        There is a difference between “going hungry/starving” and meal uncertainty. This will make an inexpensive, calorie-dense doughnut a better biological choice than kale. The reason schools across the nation are now paid to provide meals for children is food insecurity, and there is data showing that those recipients fare poorly on nutrition through the weekends.

        • Now you don’t trust the government’s own statistics? I guess we’ll just have to disagree. I think food uncertainty plays a role for some poor people but not most. I know plenty of middle class and wealthy people who exhibit the same disregard for the future consequences of their present actions. They swizzle martinis like light beers, huff cigars and look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them how often I go the gym. They have good jobs, make good money and somehow assume that their financial success is a sign that fate has given them an insurance policy on everything, including their health. I’ve helped carry their caskets at too many funerals.

          Whether you’re a pessimistic poor person who believes that nothing you do will matter or an optimistic rich person who believes that nothing you do will come back to haunt you the issue is a lack of concern for the future. The big question is whether you visit your bad habits on your children. In too many cases, rich and poor, this is exactly what happens.

          For what it’s worth, I think the school lunch program is one of the better government programs. It should be expanded to include breakfast and an after school snack. As Michelle Obama rightly contended, all of these meals should be healthy.

        • One more thing – I believe the incidence of tobacco use is materially higher (on a per capita basis) between America’s poor and America’s working class and wealthy. What biological imbalance explains that?

          • My original comment was just to note that when it comes to what people eat, there are factors beyond that availability of food, good or bad, and beyond the knowledge about nutrition. This concurs with your observation about people who have all options available yet choose unhealthy options. Not really arguing, just mentioning that the body has its own messaging that can override intellect. Thus smoking–there isn’t an American alive who doesn’t know smoking is bad for health. Why more smokers among the poor? Cultural norm. If no one around me smokes, I’ll be less inclined to partake, and if I do become addicted, I’ll encounter more objection by my villagers. If everyone I know smokes, in spite of awareness that it is bad for health, there is a glidepath to addiction, and plenty of company around the ashtray. That line in “Silence of the Lambs:” “We covet what we see…everyday.” I was an intermittent smoker since 16 but when smoking was outlawed in restaurants & bars, I was able to make the quitting stick–I got no pleasure from standing outside smoking with a few others outcasts or alone.

            I’ve always been torn by the school lunch (which now extends to breakfast in many schools) program–it feels terrible to see a child who needs food, yet, which parental role is more primordial than feeding your child? If we cede that responsibility to the Federal(!) government, aren’t we relieving parents of their most basic duty? We don’t even make the parents face the task of collecting the benefit, we force their children to present themselves as separate from the others, something most of the recipients find humiliating. It’s a troubling dilemma.

  3. Typically when you open a business with an idea of what you think customers want – and it turns out they want something else .. you adjust. You start offering what they want instead even if it’s _not_ healthy .. the goal of the entrepreneur is to stay in business and make a profit not to try to change the preferences of the customers.

    This is precisely why McDonalds sells 500 calorie/25 grams of fat burgers instead of tofu or broccoli.

    what drives most businesses out of businesses is competition.. other businesses… or just a overall lack of customers in that location.. that’s why folks like Walmart – know – down to the city block how many potential customers there are and their demographic characteristics.

    My bet is that Mr. Scanlon is surrounded by fast food chains and these days.. a lot of people simply do not cook and eat at home.. just the reality.

    The fast food company that has the most locations? Nope – it’s not McDonalds.

    Subway, 24,722.
    McDonald’s, 14,098.
    Starbucks, 10,821.
    Pizza Hut, 7,600.
    Burger King, 7,231.
    Dunkin’ Donuts, 7,015.
    Wendy’s, 6,594.
    Dairy Queen, 6,187.

    even these chains end up closing locations…

    ” Subway closed over 900 stores this year …..”

    The difference between chains and Mr. Scanlon is that the chains can sustain a loss for several years before they get out.. and smaller operators don’t have the financial resources or the resolve to go more than a year or so losing money.

  4. Food Banks are powerful enterprises not readily recognized by many.

    Go to your own pantry and grab a package or can of something.. and on it you’ll invariably find a “best if used by date”.

    that date is not a ” it’s dead and needs to be thrown out” date.

    it’s truly a “best if used by” date.

    and that date motivates most grocery stores from Walmart to it’s many competitors to “pull” that food from their shelves and deliver it to the regional Food Bank. From that food bank it goes out to neighborhood pantries from which the food is given away to “clients”.

    these pantries can – and are – located in locations classified as food deserts and food “insecurity”… the only prerequisite is a volunteer group and a cooperating church or even a storefront to operate the food pantry.

    The main impediment is that the food banks usually have a nominal fee of about 19 cents a pound to pay for the personnel staffing the Food Bank.

    that means a grocery bag with 20 lbs of food has a cost of about $4.00.

    You can’t beat that price… and there is good food in the bags.

    Even low income inner city and rural has churches.. that can easily
    let their facilities be used on a non-Sunday to get this food from the Food Bank to people who need it.

    All this other back and forth over “food insecurity” is a distraction because there are easily implemented solutions… that don’t take much more effort than all the blathering done about the “problem”.

  5. Any market has its share of visionary vendors. I agree, demand is key, but there are vendors who foresee what the market could be, not just what it is, so go out and build the demand. And there are vendors who don’t have that vision but through sales skills and sheer stubbornness create a market that has “no business” existing. I’m sorry Jim Scanlon could not make it as one of those who defy expectations.

  6. If this is the store I think it is, I always wondered about the location – right beside I 664 with limited housing but much commercial in the immediate area – very close to the shipyard, really. Plenty of housing nearby, yes, but not much right there. It would generate far less customer traffic than, say, the Richmond Kroger on Lombardy which has thousands of city residents and VCU students living within an easy walk. That store seems to thrive.

    The grocery location there in Newport News was also the anchor of a surrounding mixed use development meant to stimulate other activity, and Newport News Shipbuilding will be building a new office building right there. The city planners were heavily pushing that area and the failure of the store is a blow. The best laid plans cannot defeat the invisible hand…if you saw the location, Jim, you would recognize it did not fit your vision of a walkable neighborhood….

  7. hmmm.. this guy was an “executive” with Ukrops… bad karma..!!

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