A Capitalist Solution to Food Deserts

Militant agriculture

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday, channeling the spirit of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I asked what a young person should do if he or she wanted to make the world a better place. Broadly speaking, there are three approaches. One is activism in which people who, informed by a desire to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves, lobby for reformist government policies and create philanthropic programs to address perceived needs. Another is militancy. Convinced that the entire system is corrupt, militants waste little time ameliorating the condition of individuals but seek to overthrow the established order. A third approach is capitalism, in which entrepreneurs find creative ways to meet previously unmet needs.

Activist agriculture

We need more entrepreneurs.

If Virginia has an affordable housing crisis, we can’t solve the problem in the long run by passing eviction laws or enacting more government-subsidized housing programs. We need entrepreneurs who can find innovative ways to create lower-cost housing. If lower-income Virginians are afflicted by payday lenders charging high fees and interest rates, we can’t address the credit needs of the poor by legislating payday lenders out of existence. We need entrepreneurs who find innovative, low-cost ways to extend small amounts of credit.

Capitalist agriculture

Nowhere is the difference in philosophies more stark in Virginia than the approach to food deserts, where poor people lack access to fresh, healthy vegetables. Here in Richmond, the social-justice militants encamped around the Lee statue on Monument Avenue, have created a laughable “community garden.” To be fair, the pathetic little box is not a serious effort to feed anyone; it is a political statement. Nevertheless, if primitive militant communes ran our agricultural system, we’d be begging the Venezuelans for food.

Tricycle Gardens is a far more serious endeavor. The philanthropically supported nonprofit was launched a decade ago by community activists who thought they could address the lack of nutritious food in inner-city Richmond creating by community gardens and partnering with local food pantries. The group has expanded its mission by educating people on the value of nutritious eating, instructing people in the principles of urban agriculture, and placing healthy vegetables in urban convenience stores. The approach is positive, uplifting, and constructive. But it survives upon philanthropy and volunteer labor, which suggests that community gardens are not a productive economic model.

Then there is the capitalist way of doing things. Last month, Greenswell Growers Inc., a local company, announced that it would invest more than $17 million to establish a commercial hydroponic greenhouse operation in Goochland County’s  West Creek Industrial Park. The greenhouse is expected to produce nearly 3.7 million pounds of leafy greens for distribution through the Mid-Atlantic during its first three years of production — 28 times more product per acre than a traditional growing operation. The company has committed to providing five percent of its production to area food banks.

Hydroponic agriculture is taking off in Virginia and around the country. Rockingham-based Shenandoah Growers, Inc., operates automated greenhouses and indoor LED vertical grow rooms to produce more than 30 million certified organic plants per year. New York-based BrightFarms operates a 263,000-square-foot greenhouse outside of Danville. Shore Breeze Farms on the Eastern Shore, which started as an eight-acre family, has expanded to a 900-acre hydroponic greenhouse complex. These Virginia companies have dozens of counterparts around the country, and indeed around the world.

Hydroponic greenhouses have significant advantages over community farms and traditional farms. They can operate year-round and they aren’t dependent upon fickle weather conditions. Free from disease and insect blight, they don’t need herbicides and pesticides. They require less land and use less water. Thanks to their controlled conditions, greenhouse operators can deliver precise levels of nutrients for optimal growth, quality and taste.

Perhaps the biggest barriers to getting poor people to eat more healthy leafy greens is price. Fresh greens are expensive. If we can increase the supply and decrease the price of healthy vegetables, all other things being equal, lower-income Virginians will eat more of them. Supply is not the only barrier. Many vegetables are an acquired taste. But the application of capital and science in an innovation-driven market system certainly will do more to ameliorate food deserts than the cultivation of small but inefficient community farms.

There still is a role for activists and nonprofits. While hydroponic greenhouses work on the supply side of the equation, philanthropic endeavors should focus on the demand side: educating people about the nutritional benefits of leafy greens and showing them through cooking classes and other means how to prepare tasty dishes they actually want to eat. As for the militants, I don’t see them contributing anything useful. If we left agriculture to them, we’d all end up eating dirt…. assuming their perverse economic principles didn’t create a dirt shortage.

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51 responses to “A Capitalist Solution to Food Deserts

  1. Urban gardens; just plant them wherever they can. If Bundy can squat,…

    Actually, I have a nephew (spousal unit side) who manages a huge hydroponic farming system. Also produces fish, tilapia and one other variety. It was initially funded by a corporation with big GOP ties. It’ll come to me.

    • Carlyle Group. And managed, past tense. This was 15-20 years ago. Nephew managed their venture, which had the fish. That venture eventually went belly up, and the nephew opened his own, smaller system closer to his market area.

  2. One of the advantages of rural Fauquier living is access to places like Messicks Farm. Family run operation. Pick your own or grab harvested greens in their market for little more bread. I must say it is not cheap though. Higher prices than the grocers in town.

    The best model I have seen for affordable fresh veggies and farm goods is in Orange, Virginia. 5 Riders Farm. Amazing place. You can load up at a great price. They produce everything on site including, meat, butter, eggs, chickens, rabbit, bread, and deserts. You send them an inquiry and they will provide a quote. Prices fluctuate but still far cheaper than the grocers. Here is a way to get nutrition to those in need at affordable prices. 4 generation farm too. I loaded up on green beans at 5 Riders and canned 40 quarts. The hot July just wrecked my garden.

  3. I would think if McDonalds gave away 5% of their food to the needy, they would be accused by some of adding that cost to the price of burgers for paying customers, no?

    Ditto for a cattle farm or egg producer. If they give away some of their production, their competitors will use their 5% not given away, to re-invest in their own venture.

    It will function like a 5% tax on their production.

    Many successful businesses – AFTER they HAVE demonstrated that they are cost-effective and profitable will then share some of their profits.

    I don’t think taking it out of your production before your profits is a good plan.

    Food Banks, by the way, get USDA food which is over-production from a wide variety of different kinds of farms – but again – after the fact not before. Cheese, milk, eggs, produce, canned food, boxed food, etc… all of it excess production.

  4. People in poor urban areas don’t eat vegetables because the vegetables cost too much or because there are “food deserts” which are no doubt the result of systemic racism.

    Once upon a time African-Americans living in the inner city had better dietary habits than white people with the same food budgets. Staples like collard greens, black eyed peas and sweet potatoes were commonplace during inner city dinners. What happened? What happened is what so often happens – the gub’mint decided to help. Black entrepreneurship would be encouraged by the SBA making loan guarantees to minority owners of inner city franchises. And what do you think was franchised? Fast food. Good old LBJ and his Great Society at work again. Now there are plenty of fast food joints in the inner city but no fresh vegetables. What can be done? Wait, I know! Gub’mint to the rescue. We’ll take other people’s money to subsidize the healthy food that will be sold to counteract the fast food surplus that was subsidized by the government using other people’s money.

    You really have to wonder about people who think the answer to America’s problems is more, bigger gub’mint. If Stoney and Filler-Corn aren’t busy robbing the taxpayer blind to help rent seekers and crony capitalists then the Small Business Administration is subsidizing and encouraging fast food outlets in areas where obesity and diabetes run rampant.

    The stunning incompetence of American government, at all levels, is a sight to behold.


    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Great points Mr. DJ. Perhaps the next entrepreneur should come from a neighborhood such as those along 9 Mile Road in Richmond. A middle man of sorts from the Farm to the Table. Get the hospital around the corner to help out with the start up cash. Bon Secours surely would be interested in the neighbors having better diets and fewer trips to the hospital. Smart marketing and a bit of start up cash could change the palates of the so called food desert.

    • By the way, it is not only inner city folks who used to consider black eyed peas and sweet potatoes as staples. I love both and have at least one can of black eyed peas on my pantry shelf. I had a sweet potato for lunch yesterday. Never have been able to develop a taste for collards, however. Spinach and kale, yes.

  5. yep – we can’t talk about this without making it about race…

    FYI – Demographics of SNAP (food stamps)

    37% of participants are White, 22% are African-American, 10% are Hispanic, 2% are Asian, 4% are Native American, and 19% are of unknown race or ethnicity.


    • The missing 6% is “waste and fraud?” (That adds up to 94…).

    • Reread the title of the article. Where are the so-called “food deserts” Larry? Appalachia? Short Pump? Oh, wait … they’re in the inner cities. Maybe this will help …


      “As previously mentioned, 23.5 million people in the
      U.S. live in low-income neighborhoods located
      more than 1 mile from a supermarket. African
      Americans are half as likely to have access to
      chain supermarkets and Hispanics are a third
      less likely to have access to chain supermarkets.
      Area-specific studies have found that minority
      communities are more likely to have smaller
      grocery stores carrying higher priced, less
      varied food products than other neighborhoods.”

      Golly Gee – food deserts are the result of “structural racism”. Do you think that’s anti-white racism?

      If you’re going to be a shrieking liberal you need to learn the narrative. Food deserts are the result of structural racism against African-Americans and, to a somewhat lesser degree, against Hispanic-Americans. The fast food franchises initially subsidized by the government under Lyndon Johnson have nothing to do with the problem. Or maybe Johnson was a structural racist who was trying to make minorities unhealthy. Wait, what about The Great Society? Sometimes it’s hard to keep liberal theology straight.

      If people in the inner cities wanted to buy the products in grocery stores some greedy businessman would build grocery stores in the inner city. Kind of like the greedy businessmen who built all those fast food outlets.

      • Does that in and of itself prove they cannot or do not get fruits and veggies? The most recent local story about the gigantic turnout at food banks featured (drum roll) a long line of cars, idling their engines as the line inched forward. People mentioned being in line hours. I’m not saying it isn’t a problem if you don’t have a vehicle and many don’t, but does 1) no nearby store directly translate into 2) never eats fruit, vegetables or other healthy food?

        • Sirens and Horns blaring loudly:

          ” People mentioned being in line hours. I’m not saying it isn’t a problem if you don’t have a vehicle and many don’t, but does 1) no nearby store directly translate into 2) never eats fruit, vegetables or other healthy food?”

          NO! It’s a meme and a myth.

          Nowdays, most folks have access to transportation.

          The pantry I’m familiar with – they carpool. The groceries have to be loaded carefully so that 3 or 4 people can fit it all in one car.

          People with their own carts show up.

          If you have a low-income part of a city – it’s dead simple. You set up a pantry in a nearby church and you bring in food to them.

          It’s what Food banks and Pantries do – it’s their thing.

          With the pandemic, many more needed food but had almost nothing to do with so-called food deserts…

          On the schools. When the schools were doing in-person, kids not only got lunches, but breakfasts also AND food to take home – Food Banks distribute to school pantries also!

          This is a problem during the pandemic but it’s also a problem every summer and some schools continue to hand out food and they also have mobile pantries.

          this is a problem already being dealt with. It may need to be improved but it’s not at all like a bunch of people are living in food deserts with no food.

          Gardening by the way is NOT an efficient way to produce large amount of food for folks..

        • The long running contention is that food deserts exist and those food deserts prevent people, especially in the inner city, from being able to purchase healthy food. Therefore, people in the inner city tend to eat unhealthy prepared and fast food.

          As far as I know, food banks give away food rather than sell it. Healthy food apparently tastes fine when it is free. However, I question whether grocery stores could effectively compete with fast and prepared food in areas where people have become accustomed to fast and prepared food.

          Nature and capitalism both abhor vacuums. I find it more than a little odd that demand exists for fresh groceries in the inner city but nobody wants to profit from meeting that demand. Claims of structural racism are hard to fathom when so many fast food outlets exist in the inner city.

          My personal guess is that this is a time based problem. Living in the inner city, working in the suburbs or downtown and taking public transportation to and from work leaves little time for cooking. It’s easier to grab something from McDonald’s than to spend a couple of hours cooking collard greens. Single parent households only exacerbate this problem.

          Food trucks selling healthy prepared meals seem like a better idea than grocery stores.

          • Grocery stores have their place in the economy where they co-exist with other food providers…

            whatever that is – they typically will buy more than they will sell -not just produce, canned goods and meat also.

            They sell as much as they can make a profit on and send the rest to the food bank.

            The food bank has trucks and send people to pick it up.

            The food IS given away – but it’s also (outside of pandemics) largely given to people who have qualified for it on an income basis.

            It is NOT “free” to the pantries that distribute it – at least in our region. There is a 20 cent a pound charge for handling. That’s the part where some people donate money and others their time to make it work.

            If you really want to help people who do need – no matter whether they live in an official “desert” or not, and you think it should be more of a community thing and not a government thing – then that’s where you might come in… 😉

            doesn’t need to be an uber ideology thing…….

          • Eric the Half a Troll

            I think part of the issue is “fast food” is fast (and cheap). As in easy when you live a frazzled life (as people in poverty tend to do). Pantry food, while more healthy, is cheap but not fast.

            Tackle that problem and the issue probably largely resolves itself.

            Of course, there are still the corporate food scientists out there working every day to design ever more fast food options that appeal to our id (particularly that of those living in poverty – easy marks) on multiple levels and are designed to addict and ultimately kill the host (think big tobacco) but that is a topic for another day.

          • The “poor folks should eat healthy greens” meme will not die! It’s an article of faith for some… 😉

  6. Anyone commenting here , consider going to the Food Bank where you live and ask for a tour.

    You will find, among other things, that most major grocers order far more produce than they will sell and what they don’t sell goes to the food bank where it then goes out to pantries – that are usually located where the need is.

    It’s just misinformation and ignorance that foster some of these tomes about how to best “help” the “poor” and with some a racial perspective when the reality is that white folks and rural are also a significant percentage. Food banks serve regions – including inner city AND rural. So called food-deserts are everywhere.

    Companies like WalMart get more produce than they need – make as much profit off of it as they can, then write off what they don’t sell and send to the Food Bank.

    This is a win-win for everyone and you don’t have to be pontificating about the “poor” or “blacks” – and really, if you are a fiscal conservative – this is a very efficient and cost-effective process.

    As said before, another big chunk of what Food Banks distribure is actually Uncle Same stabalizing farm production by buying excess production and send it to food banks. The caveat is that for a given day or given week, no one knows what products it will be. It varies. Some weeks it’s milk, other weeks it’s corn on the cob, it’s whatever you get.

    More, in the summer will come from produce not sold at farmers markets.

    You really don’t need producers diverting 5% of their production. It’s much better to wait and see what is excess and then make sure it’s not wasted but sent to where needed.

    Yes, government is involved in this and no, it’s not pure capitalism but why continue to make one the enemy of the other? It makes no sense.

    The more important thing is a process that does work. It melds capitalism with philanthropy and government and why would anyone want to take it apart?

    • This country’s food safety net is deep, multi-layered and generous. Hooray for the food banks and the various urban garden programs. Panic over sending kids to school for lessons didn’t end the daily ration of food so many children get from school. This is a solution in search of a problem (like so much else).

      • re: long and deep –

        which is the reason I support a centralized approach with all excess food going to a central food bank which then can distribute regionally to food pantries.

        Everytime we duplicate, we waste and actually end up with less food for need than if we were more organized and effective.

        I’m not opposed to de-centralized if it is truly institutionalized and not a flash in the pan for tempoarily motivated folks.

        A food bank goes on forever – you cannot stop when you get disinterested or find other things more interesting to you.

        It’s hard to go on – day after day, week after week doing that mission but it is the mission and it’s not for those who have “feel good” motivations that wax and wane.

        Money is fungible. If someone really believes in the mission but can’t promise contnuous dedication – share some of your wealth. It will go to a good use. Companies do this also. For instance, at Thanksgiving, they will order extra turkeys and done them and the food bank distributes them along with all the extras. Ditto at Christmas.

        I’d LOVE to see the Food Bank MODEL used for providing for other needs in communities rather than multiple groups doing the same thing and essentially competing for resoruces and duplicating administrative functions.

        • I assume food banks give away the food. Fine. But that’s not the point of “food deserts”. The theory of “food deserts” holds that there is some inherently racist reason why there are few grocery stores selling healthy food in the inner city. That example of structural racism forces residents of the inner city to buy and consume unhealthy fast and prepared food. Needless to say, that fast and prepared food is purchased with money, not received for free. But it causes obesity, diabetes, etc.

          The question is whether building grocery stores that sell food for money in so-called food deserts would result in the residents of those food deserts buying healthy food in lieu of buying fast or prepared food. I have my doubts.

          This has nothing to do with food banks. I’m very sure there is a ready market for free food – healthy, unhealthy, whatever. The question is whether there is a market for SELLING healthy food inside a so-called food desert.

          • I’m a skeptic of the food desert meme even though the NGOs use it all the time… The other term they use is “need” which I much more agree with.

            It’s more than inner city. There is a lot of rural.

        • “I’d LOVE to see the Food Bank MODEL used for providing for other needs in communities …”

          So, everything should be free and handed out by the government or some charitable organization?

          The goal of food banks should be to go out of business because people have decent jobs and can afford to buy their food rather than getting it for free. No?

          Food banks represent a failure of the economy in my opinion.

          • Food Banks are a conglommeration of govt , private sector, philanthropy and individual charity.

            It actually demonstrates that you don’t need JUST the Govt.

            No the goal of food banks is to serve a need. It’s NOT their job to fix the economy or inequality.

            They exist until the folks who are actually responsible for fixing those things – do.

            This is, again, a silly argument. It’s like arguing that VDOT is a failure because we continue to have congestion or that VDH is a failure because we still have virus or roaches..or EPA is a failure because we sitll have pollution.

            Don’t know why you folks think that way! 😉 congenital?

  7. Yes, this market is ripe for continued expansion and growth.

    I am fortunate to live 1 block from my year-round farmer’s market in Falls Church and they feature the hydroponically grown greens from Endless Summer Harvest, located in Purcellville, VA. My wife and I love them and order some every week.

    In addition to NGOs promoting healthy living and eating in urban food deserts, the local jurisdictions could also encourage and support local farmer’s markets and ensure that each of these suppliers have a route to market that serves the broadest section of Virginia’s needs.


  8. “The question is whether there is a market for SELLING healthy food inside a so-called food desert.”

    That is the key issue. If it is not possible for someone to make a living/profit from operating a grocery store in a food desert then no one is going to voluntarily open a grocery store in a food desert, no matter what ugly names they are called by the ACLU and New York Law School.

  9. the difference between demand and need.

    Business will serve a demand but not necessarily a need especially
    if it’s going to be at their sole cost.

    As far as I know, few would think badly of Walmart for purposely buying more food than demand so they can maximize profit, and then send the excess to serve a need in the community if others will pay the downstream costs with $$ and sweat equity.

    Even if the government helps- it saves them money also rather than paying for everything and totally running the show.

    Some folks, you cannot satisfy. Government is bad no matter what.

  10. There is an unexamined facet, time. Prepared foods take a lot less time. For people working multiple, often part time jobs with irregular schedules, time can be an issue. Cleaning, prepping, cooking, serving, is time some simply do not have.

  11. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    If you are short on bread and have an empty tummy ohhh thank heaven for McDonalds. This is where the poor and elderly eat in our cities. Each item below is just a buck. It’s hot, cheap, you get to eat inside (pre covid), no cooking, no cleanup. If you have kids. You can’t beat this. It simply costs too much to eat right and healthy for some.

    • James is totally correct and contrary to what some folks might think and say – it’s not just the poor who get obese and diabetes from fast food.

      But of course, if you’re poor, you’re supposed to be eating lettuce and “greens”, not fast food cuz otherwise you’d be needing “free” taxpayer-funded healthcare too!


      re: ” Wait! Why can activists not also operate hydroponic gardens?”

      well , because that totally screws up the stereotyping… no fair!

    • Yes, then the question becomes “Is there a healthy fast food?” Moe’s? Who advertises no freezers, no microwaves, fresh food?

      So, inner city hydroponic gardens supplying prepared ready-to-eat foods.

  12. Wait! Why can activists not also operate hydroponic gardens?

  13. If you are poor – you cannot be obese or get diabetes.. you must eat “greens” instead. They’re good for you and they cut down on the health care costs that real workers have to pay for.

    And if things still don’t work out, tough cookies, if you are poor -you SHOULD be screwed…. That’s the way things work.

    know your place. Now, if we can only shed ourselves of these bleeding hearts… that think otherwise, life will be much better for those that actually “earn”.

    oh, and hydroponic tomatoes are one of those things that apparently don’t sell and get sent to food banks – especially in the summer when “real” tomatoes are available.

    Visit a food bank. You’d be amazed at how much excess food exists in our supply chain. Every can that has a date on it – will often get sent – even though only infant formula have to be not sold. All the rest are “best if used by” dates.

  14. The key piece missing from this discussion is that many Americans, including many in the inner city, just don’t like healthy vegetables. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kale, etc. are an acquired taste. I’m 67 years old, and it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve been able to incorporate Brussel sprouts and cauliflower into my diet — and the ONLY reason I’ve done so is because it has been hammered into me that they are healthy. The more educated Americans are, the more likely they are to have absorbed the message and forced themselves to change their diet. For whatever reason, the transition to healthier food has been slower among less educated people.

    You can supply people with all the broccoli, turnips, sweet potatoes, parsnips, kale, and Brussel sprouts for free that you want, but if people don’t like it, they won’t eat it, and they certainly won’t buy it. Reducing the price of expensive leafy greens is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.

    I am reminded of a story told by West Virginian politician Raymond Chafin of the time he visited JFK in the White House. Discussing the plight of out-of-work coal miners, he told the president how sick West Virginians were of getting government-surplus commodities like flour, cornmeal, rice, butter, oats and lard. People, he said, took the food home and fed it to their hogs and chickens.

    • This is unarguably an underlying truth, but it was our generation that did this. I assure you, Dad never ate a Big Mac in his life, and until I turned 16, neither did I.

      “I’m 67 years old,…”. Get outta here! Geez man, update your profile photo. There’s a camera in your phone. Get an 8-year old to show you how to selfie. If it’s recent, publish your weekly diet.

  15. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Plumpy Nut is pre packaged famine food that has saved millions world wide from famine. A great mind could hit the city food desert with a pre packaged tasty treat that costs very little and fills you up for the day.

    • How long can a person live on it? You can live on spam and rice for a year or two, according to my father and his time at sea in WWII, but he wouldn’t touch either of them again.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        I had an exchange student from Ghana who grew up on this stuff. She brought me a Plumpy Nut to school. It wasn’t bad. The taste was somewhere between a Payday bar and Butterfingers. Filled you up too. Hit my gut like an anchor. Packed full of everything to cure you of acute malnutrition.

        • Ah, found it. It’s supposed to be emergency food for extreme malnutrition only. They say don’t rely on it over a varied diet. But thanks, I’m going to see if I can get some for the ditch bag, but it doesn’t seem to be easy to get. The manufacturer seems to sell to the NGOs only.

          • Baconator with extra cheese

            I use Aldi peanut butter as my fall back rations… cheap, long shelf life, and will keep me alive for a long time… I will be pissy but not starving.

          • Pissy? I have the other problem. Boy Scout bonding effluvium.

        • As most all diabetics know , carbs are almost as bad as sugar.

    • High in Carbs, Fat, and Potassium. The possible only draw back would be a peanut allergy.

      1171 mg of potassium sounds like a good way to find cardiac arrest if you aren’t starving and malnourished.

      It’s kind of link MRE’s, if you’re moving and doing the work it’s good for you. If you’re sitting still, it’ll kill ya.

  16. So these concepts of eating “healthy” and actually being healthy don’t really address the role of access to good health care.

    The bigger difference between low and higher income people is health care – having access to a dedicated primary care doctor who can help the patient manage their conditions like obesity.

    Continuing health care helps people better understand their health conditions and provides options on how to manage them with proper medical advice and treatment with well known and inexpensive drugs.

    In fact, fixing food deserts without addrssing health care is not effective.

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