When President Obama was in office, First Lady Michelle Obama made food deserts one of her top priorities in combating childhood obesity. According to the USDA, food deserts are defined as areas void or with sparse distribution of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy, whole foods. The Food Desert Locator was part of the former first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative.
Unfortunately, this is usually the case in lower-income areas. Food deserts occur due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets, and lack of resources at mom-and-pop stores, like bodegas. That makes them an especially Hispanic problem.
A report by the National Council of La Raza found that “counties with large Hispanic populations have a greater proportion of the people with limited access to grocery stores (29%), than other counties (21%).” The risk is even greater for Latino children and low-income people.
This does, however create an opportunity for consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies and produce distributors, according to Evelyn Brito, a young filmmaker producing a new TV series called “Bodega Makeover.” We visited with her to talk about her show and how she came to study this topic.
“At age 4 I grew up around bodegas in the Northeast,” Brito said. “It was my job at that young age to put the price stickers on items since my dad worked at one. I want to do the “Bodega Makeover” series to help these [bodegas] take care of their customers.”
The demand for fresh produce and healthier options is there, especially among Latinas who may be less acculturated than their contemporaries. They typically immigrated to the U.S. when they were young, so their cooking is rooted in the traditions of home. Yet finding the fresh ingredients to make those traditional dishes is difficult in these deserts, especially without a car.
“The other day, I went to three bodegas to find some vegetables for my daughter, and all I could find was rotten produce,” Brito said. “I couldn’t get anything fresh without driving or taking the bus.”
The idea behind the series is to literally help bodega owners revamp their stores so that they can offer fresh produce and fruits to their clientele. Think cooler cases, produce bins, and business education.
“There is no fresh produce because these owners don’t know how to keep produce fresh and they don’t have the resources to do so,” Brito said.
Her project launches in August. But in the meantime, food deserts won’t end until CPG companies see the opportunity to sell healthy snacks, whole foods/grains, and soda alternatives. The map above clearly illustrates areas of over 5% concentration. Fresh fruit and produce distributors also have an opportunity to grow their penetration outside of the grocery store chains.
Expanding penetration into mom-and-pop stores/bodegas is a win for Hispanics, CPG companies, produce distributors and the fight against obesity.