Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Food Deserts & WIC Vouchers: Half A Loaf For the New Fresh & Easy Store Opening Tomorrow in South Los Angeles

[Photo Credit: Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market]

Commentary & Analysis

Beginning tomorrow, when Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opens its new food and grocery store at 1025 East Adams Boulevard (pictured above), residents of the low-income Central & Adams neighborhood in South Los Angeles, which is underserved by full-service grocery markets, will have an additional place to shop for fresh foods, groceries and related products.

The Central & Adams neighborhood, like most of South Los Angeles, is a food desert, a generally urban area (but can be rural too) in which few supermarkets or grocery stores offering a decent selection of fresh food and grocery products exist.

Residents of food desert neighborhoods have a limited choice of nearby food shopping venues. Instead, they must either travel a considerable distance to the closest supermarket or shop at neighborhood convenience stores or mini-marts, both of which offer a limited selection of foods (particularly nutritious ones), and have prices considerably higher than those at supermarkets and other format stores offering food and groceries, like Walmart, Costco and Target, for example.

Since most often food desert neighborhood residents are lower income folks, this serves as a "double-whammy" for them economically: shopping at the convenience stores and mini-marts costs at least 30% more than at supermarkets. Additionally, many residents of food desert neighborhoods don't own cars. This means they have to take public transportation to the nearest supermarket, which often means spending money they don't have.

And of course the lack of fresh and nutritious foods available nearby often leads to health problems such as obesity and diabetes, to name just two.

No WIC Vouchers at the new South L.A. Fresh & Easy

Unfortunately, not all of the residents of the Central & Adams neighborhood in South Los Angeles will be able to take advantage of the new Fresh & Easy market when it opens tomorrow.

That's because Tesco's Fresh & Easy doesn't accept WIC Vouchers, which are distributed by California's Women, Infants and Childrens Program to poor woman, infants and children., at any of its 141 stores.

WIC is a federally funded health and nutrition program for women which, among other things, helps families by providing checks for buying healthy supplemental foods from WIC-authorized vendors.

WIC is a lifeline for many women and their children

WIC is funded by federal dollars, administrated by states, and implemented by counties, as is the

case in Los Angeles County, where the new South Los Angeles Fresh & Easy store is located. For most of these families, which are often headed by a single woman, were it not for the WIC Vouchers, the infants and children would likely go without much needed essential and nutritious foods like infant formula, whole milk, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Unlike food stamps, which is another government food assistance program, the WIC Vouchers stipulate the kinds of foods families can purchase at grocery stores using the checks. [Here's a list of the qualifying foods under the WIC program.]

The vouchers look similar to a check, and list the types of foods on them users can purchase. At the grocery store the clerk fills in the voucher blanks and processes it just like stores do with paper checks.

In California, 82 local WIC agencies serve over 1.4 million women, infants and children each month under the nutritional food assistance program.

Additionally, in the last two years of the recession, requests for WIC vouchers have soared, according to California WIC, including requests from women who in the past have never received, or even thought about receiving, food assistance of any kind from a governmental agency.

According to California and Los Angeles County WIC, South Los Angeles has one of the highest percentages of women, infants and children receiving WIC Vouchers in the state. This shouldn't be a surprise because Central Los Angeles also has one of the highest poverty rates in California.

But because Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market does not accept WIC Vouchers as a matter of corporate policy, the many women, infants and children in the neighborhood who rely on WIC to survive and have at least a minimal amount of nutritious food, won't be able to use the vouchers at the 1025 East Adams Boulevard Fresh & Easy fresh food and grocery store that opens tomorrow.

Nearby competitor Superior accepts WIC Vouchers

There is some good news for these woman, infants and children though. A local chain, Superior Grocers, opened a supermarket last year in South Los Angeles, just a couple blocks from the new Fresh & Easy store - and Superior accepts WIC Vouchers at its South Los Angeles store, along with at all of its 33 supermarkets in Southern California.

When Superior opened its South Los Angeles store last year it made a major impact on better serving the food store-underserved residents of Central Los Angeles.

The new Fresh & Easy store will add to that better service for residents - accept unfortunately for the women, infants and children who rely on WIC program assistance in order to obtain nutritious foods.

And in many cases were it not for the WIC Vouchers, many of these women, infants and children would experience regular hunger. Many still do even with the vouchers, but the program provides a lifeline for them.

Time for Fresh & Easy to accept WIC Vouchers

Fresh & Easy Buzz has called on Tesco's Fresh & Easy to accept WIC Vouchers in the past - both because it's the right thing to do from a corporate responsibility stance and as a "neighborhood grocer," which Fresh & Easy defines itself as - but also because it makes just plain good business sense (self interest) for any grocer to do so, especially one that needs sales like Fresh & Easy does. These are basically the reasons pretty much 100% of Fresh & Easy's competitors in California, Nevada and Arizona accept WIC Vouchers.

Additionally, there's a historical social pact or contract between the state of California and its grocers in which accepting the WIC Vouchers is a part. Fresh & Easy is really out of sink in the industry but not understanding this social pact and changing its policy to accept the WIC.

Further, from the smart business perspective, WIC brings considerable added sales to grocers, particularly in lower income areas like Central Los Angeles which have many voucher users.

For example, many of the items that can be purchased using the vouchers are "high ring" items like infant formula, whole milk and whole grain cereals.

WIC recently added more fresh produce items to the program as well. Last time we checked, Tesco's Fresh & Easy could use all the added fresh produce sales it can get. There is still considerable shrink (throwing away) in the grocer's fresh produce category, along with regular 50% markdowns of produce and other fresh foods items as they near the end of their code dates.

WIC is one of the few programs that has widespread bipartisan support in Congress. Liberal Democrats from urban districts like the program for obvious reasons. However, many farm state conservative Republicans also support WIC, for among other reasons due to the fact that it brings considerable revenue to the farmers and food processors in their states.

Most moderates in both parties also support WIC. For example, in the last three Republican Presidential Administrations - Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 - there was no serious discussion about getting rid of WIC.

When Republicans held a majority in Congress for years they made no efforts to eliminate WIC either.

Last year Congress passed legislation, which the President signed, that added $1.2 billion in funding to WIC, a 22% increase in its budget, as we wrote about in this March 2009 piece: Federal Government Spending Bill Increases WIC Voucher Program Dollars by $1.2 Billion; 21 Percent Increase.

Food deserts, food access and WIC Vouchers

Food deserts have been much in the news over the last week because of First Lady Michelle Obama's new "Lets Move" childhood obesity and nutrition initiative.

A major element of the "Lets Move" program is called "Accessing Healthy & Affordable Food." Here's what the First lady says about this part of her initiative (in italics):

"More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket.

These communities, where access to affordable, quality, and nutritious foods is limited, are known as food deserts.

By using the new (USDA) interactive Food Environment Atlas, users can see the location of food deserts across the country and other indicators of how successful communities are in accessing healthy food.

Lack of access to proper nutrition is one reason why many children are not eating the recommended levels of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Food insecurity and hunger among our children is even more widespread. A recent USDA report showed that in 2008, an estimated 49.1 million people, including 16.7 million children, lived in households that experienced hunger multiple times throughout the year. (Household Food Security in the United States, 2008.)

Too often, these same school age children are not eating the recommended level of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy products. (source) So, Let’s Move to ensure that all families have access to healthy, affordable food in their communities.

As part of the President’s proposed FY 2011 budget, the Administration announced a new program – the Healthy Food Financing Initiative -- a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services which will invest $400 million a year to provide innovative financing to bring grocery stores to underserved areas and help places such as convenience stores and bodegas carry healthier food options.

Grants will also help bring farmers markets and fresh foods into underserved communities, boosting both family health and local economies. Through these initiatives and private sector engagement, the Administration will work to eliminate food deserts across the country within seven years.

This Spring, LetsMove.gov will unveil specialized tool kits and strategies to help increase access to healthy, affordable food in communities across the country."

It's rather clear (read paragraphs three and four) that the federally-funded WIC Program plays a key part in the First Lady's "Lets Move" initiative - and it does.

After all, if you build a supermarket in a food desert neighborhood, but those living in the neighborhood who are in most need of affordable, nutritious food - mothers, children and infants receiving WIC Vouchers - can't use them at your store, are you really part of the solution for all residents?

Suggestion for Fresh & Easy: 'Lets Move' - on accepting WIC

Tesco's Fresh & Easy wants to get credit for opening stores in these underserved, food desert neighborhoods. For example, on February 19 the grocer tweeted on its Twitter.com feed being mentioned in this National Public Radio news report about the First Lady's initiative and the topic of food deserts.

As we've reported before, Fresh & Easy has opened about three -to- four of its current 141 stores in neighborhoods that can be classified as food deserts.

We give Tesco's Fresh & Easy credit for opening those three or four stores in food desert neighborhoods, as we have done in past pieces in the Blog.

But any credit the grocer takes or is given must be only "half a loaf."

The other half of the loaf comes when Tesco's Fresh & Easy changes its policy and, like nearly 100% of its competitors, accepts WIC Vouchers from those women, children and infants that today can't use them in any of the grocer's stores, including the new South Los Angeles Fresh & Easy market that opens tomorrow at 1025 East Adams Boulevard.

To quote the wife of the current American President: "Lets Move."

Related posts in Fresh & Easy Buzz:

March 20, 2009: Federal Government Spending Bill Increases WIC Voucher Program Dollars by $1.2 Billion; 21 Percent Increase

March 7, 2009: Analysis & Commentary: The Seven Retail Operations Changes Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market Needs to Make to Help it Get On the Success Track

December 29, 2008: Tesco's Fresh & Easy, 'Food Deserts' and WIC Vouchers; A 'Year-End' Analysis & Commentary

September 7, 2008: Analysis & Commentary: Should Tesco's Fresh & Easy Put An Asterisk Next to its Motto? Yes; Unless it Corrects Four Operational Omissions.

June 3, 2008: Fresh & Easy Buzz Redux: Barack Obama to Tesco's Fresh & Easy in Our February 13 Piece: 'Build More Stores in Underserved Neighborhoods'

May 12, 2008: Food Deserts: Coalition to Create 'Blue Ribbon' Commission, Draft Report to Encourage Grocers to Open Stores in Underserved Los Angeles Neighborhoods

February 13, 2008: Leading Democratic Candidate for President Barack Obama Joins Group in Asking Tesco's Fresh & Easy to Put More Stores in Underserved Neighborhoods

September 23, 2008: Food Retailing, Society & Economics: 'Food Deserts' and Public Health

August 11, 2008: Arizona Region Market Report: Which Food Retailer Will Seize the Opportunity Offered by the Lack of a Grocery Store in Downtown Tempe, Arizona?

July 29, 2008: Tesco's Fresh & Easy and San Francisco's Tenderloin Redux: Upcoming Developments Offer First Mover Opportunity For Fresh & Easy or Competitors

July 15, 2008: Fresh Food to Bloom in An Inner-City Food Desert: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Breaks Ground For New Store in Underserved South Los Angeles Neighborhood

July 2, 2008: Tesco's to Open A Fresh & Easy Grocery Market in Low Income, Underserved South Central Los Angeles Neighborhood

July 11, 2008: 'Food Desert' Neighborhoods and Southern California: More on the Fresh & Easy Store Planned For South Central Los Angeles

July 6, 2008: Former NBA Great Earvin 'Magic' Johnson is Working His Business Magic in Urban, Inner City Neighborhoods; We Offer An Idea For Tesco's Fresh & Easy

May 28, 2008: Las Vegas Market Report: A 'Food Desert' Neighborhood to Get A New Grocery Store; But it's Not A Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market

May 14, 2008: New Foods At Fresh & Easy: Los Angeles' 'Homeboy Bakery' and Tesco's Fresh & Easy Could Be A Match 'Made in Heaven'

June 1, 2008: Upcoming New Markets Special Report: From Food Desert to Urban Oasis? Tuesday Election Could Change San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point Forever

April 30, 2008: (Grocery) Storeless in Seattle: Food Deserts in Urban and Inner-City Seattle, Washington; Might be a 911 Call to Tesco's Fresh & Easy?

April 27, 2008: New Study Points to Increasing Urban 'Food Deserts' In North America: Locating Stores in 'Food Deserts' A Part of Fresh & Easy's Strategy

April 29, 2008: Tesco's Fresh & Easy an Issue in Sacramento, California Mayor's Race A Year Before its First Store in the Capital City Even Opens

April 13, 2008: San Francisco: Cool Bay Breezes, A City Full of History, Cable Cars--And A 'Fresh & Easy' State of Mind

March 7, 2008: Former NBA All-Star and Sacramento Native Kevin Johnson is the Driving Force Behind a Fresh & Easy Market in Sacramento's Oak Park Neighborhood

February 19, 2008: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Serving as an Economic Stimulus Package of Sorts for California's Troubled Commercial Retail Real Estate Industry

February 10, 2008: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Opens Latest New Store in 'Food Desert' City of Compton, California

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