Many North Carolinians don't have easy access to stores selling healthy food – a concept known as living in a “food desert”. Most of us know of food markets in low income neighborhoods that were deemed unprofitable and then closed, never to be replaced. (I can think of a couple of examples in east Raleigh.) That’s not surprising, given that that grocery stores, like most retail establishments, are designed to maximize profits, not to benefit the consumer.
There is loads of evidence-based research on how to arrange the products in the supermarket to influence our buying behavior. Ever stop to think about why the milk and dairy products are usually in the back? It’s so that shoppers will have to walk past all the other stuff (and be tempted to make an impulse purchase) when all they intended to buy is a quart of milk.
There are federal programs under consideration that would create financial incentives to open stores in underserved areas. This is good -- a lot of Tar Heel State communities would benefit greatly from the addition of a Food Lion or Piggly Wiggly. But alongside the need to have more grocery stores, communities should press to have better grocery stores.
A recent article at The Atlantic website  discusses how supermarkets could be designed differently to promote good health. Some of the specific ideas mentioned in the Atlantic article may seem a bit far-fetched, like a grocery cart that computes the nutritional value of items you put in it. But it's great to see a discussion of the impact of supermarkets on our physical health. Let's be real: in the near future, most of us will not have our food-shopping needs fully met by organic farmers' markets. We will rely on supermarkets. Better, then, to help these establishments identify ways to maximize profits in ways that promote, rather than sacrifice, their customers’ well-being.
The supermarket model of food distribution emerged and developed within the living memory of my parents' generation. Something new may emerge in our lifetimes to take its place. In the meantime, we should be wary of the big stores' methods of food merchandising, and apply what leverage we can to improve the healthy offerings in our local food outlets.
John James, M.A.
Research Analyst, Clergy Health Initiative