Food deserts, whether in big cities or small towns, have proven difficult to shake—but largely grassroots nonprofit efforts around the country are turning out to be essential options for solving the problem.
With grocery store chains leaving markets behind without any alternatives, nonprofits are increasingly filling in the gaps.
The issue has become more prominent in recent years as for-profit stores have closed specific locations or shut down entirely. For example, last year Virginia grocery chain Farm Fresh closed its doors after its parent company decided to focus on its wholesale business—a situation that nearly proved tragic but was saved from a worse fate after other major national grocers, such as Harris Teeter and Kroger, stepped in to purchase most of the buildings.
Not every area is so lucky.
Other chains often decide to shut individual stores, sometimes creating food deserts when no store comes in to replace the original tenant. As Public Radio International recently noted, the problem can sometimes be caused by restrictive leases that prevent a company’s competition from taking over a vacant space.
While challenging, these types of situations create opportunities for nonprofits to step into the fold. Last year, a local Salvation Army chapter launched a grocery store in an area of Baltimore that had been poorly served by grocery chains. And other nonprofits big and small have jumped on the trend. Among the more notable initiatives:
Daily Table, a Massachusetts grocery store chain launched in 2015 by a former Trader Joe’s president, works with suppliers to access surplus foods that it can purchase at a discount. “In this way, we are able to keep prices affordable for all our customers,”says the nonprofit’s website. “Our meals are priced to compete with fast food options, making it easier for families to eat healthier within their means.”
Jubilee Food Market, a Waco, Texas, grocery store that was converted to a nonprofit model, has proven successful enough at receiving donations that it has a staff of more than 70. Nonprofit Quarterly reports that the store, run by the nonprofit Mission Waco, successfully supported its growth by offering stock shares to the community—and that effort surpassed expectations.
Grand Avenue Market—a grocery store in Plains, Kansas, that opened in 2018—was built in a rural area, which previously didn’t have a nearby grocery store available in more than 15 years. The store was launched by a foundation created by a group of concerned citizens, and it took nearly a decade for the idea to reach fruition.
In Dallas, two nonprofits, CitySquare and For Oak Cliff, are collaborating on a grocery store in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, an area where the closest grocery store is about 10 minutes away and the best food options otherwise are dollar stores and convenience stores. “We just think this can be done. A nonprofit grocery store is an operation where you’ve squeezed out most of the hard costs,” said the Rev. Gerald Britt Jr., who serves as CitySquare’s vice president of external affairs. The store aims to open next year.
But keeping grocery stores open in food deserts isn’t always easy. Some stores purposely built in food deserts, particularly those that don’t use nonprofit models, have at times struggled.
In a Nonprofit Quarterly piece, contributor Debby Warren explained that these nonprofit grocery stores, even the successful ones, face major challenges in maintaining their place in the community.
“Bottom line, nonprofit groceries face daunting challenges, even if owned and nurtured by a strong parent organization,” she wrote. “Not only are they operating in a notoriously tough industry with razor-thin margins on often perishable products, these mission-based businesses have the additional mandate to simultaneously change consumers’ attitudes about healthy eating.”