Healthy food access: Defining the problem

This is a blog series focused on how the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation approaches food access work.  You will hear from our partners who work each day to remove barriers for low-income families who do not have easy access to healthy and nutritious foods in their neighborhoods. You can read the whole series here.

For those who measure “food access” by the number of clicks it takes to order a meal or the amount of time it takes for groceries to be delivered to the front door, June 2017 was a big month. Amazon agreed to acquire Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, leading many to anticipate the day when Amazon Prime subscribers can have Whole Foods groceries delivered within the hour. Blue Apron, a subscription service that will send you all the ingredients you need to cook reasonably healthy meals at home for $9+ per meal, went public at a valuation of $1.9 billion. If you’re an American living in an affluent urban neighborhood, your access to healthy foods has likely never been greater.

What do these changes mean for the 23.5 million Americans who don’t have access to a supermarket within a mile of their home?  In the immediate future, it might not seem all that relevant, as most of the recent innovations in food delivery are aimed at upper-income consumers. But in the coming years, the changes in the grocery industry will present new ways to ensure that people of all income levels and in all zip codes have access to healthy food.

As excited as we are about the opportunities ahead, we root our thinking about this work in one of our guiding Dell Social Impact Principles: “If it looks easy, look closer.” Food access is not simply a puzzle in which technology, as the final missing piece, will solve the problem. Rather, food access is one sub-component of a complex national food system, that is both cause and consequence of many social challenges in the United States.

So, while our level of enthusiasm is high and the urgency for healthy food access is great, we must approach this work thoughtfully and holistically, rather than focusing our efforts on one particular lever of change.

Our approach

But what does a holistic approach look like? First, it means thinking carefully about what food access actually means in different communities. Physical proximity to a grocery store is the most common way to define food deserts, but even this straightforward metric isn’t as simple as it might seem. A distance of one mile between home and grocery store might feel like a marathon without a car or public transit, or without safe sidewalks on the way, or with a dozen cheap, unhealthy alternatives much closer to home. Even with close physical access, many grocers have failed as a result of stocking their shelves with foods that were not culturally relevant, didn’t meet the quality expectations of community residents, or weren’t affordable. So when we talk about food access at the foundation, we are referring to both the affordability and the physical accessibility of culturally relevant, healthy foods within a particular community.

We also know that increasing access to healthy food requires both supply and demand.  We are learning about what contributes to consumer demand in the retail environment – both the perceived and sometimes unperceived strategies that can nudge all of us toward healthier options and away from unhealthy ones.  In some cases, this may mean changing the way stores are organized or the use of in-store marketing tools.  In others, it may mean price incentives and disincentives that promote the healthier option.  Understanding the role of policy and pricing levers, and how to use them responsibly and without harm, is one focus of our work.

Perhaps even more powerful for scale is institutional demand for healthy food.  Our partners in institutional procurement and supply chains are testing new models that work on everything from integrating more small-scale farmers into the institutional supply chain, to aggregating and distributing products with consistency in quality and timing, to building demand for those products at food service companies and community anchor institutions that can serve thousands of community members and employees each day.  And when we can leverage relationships of trust as a hub point to affect multiple downstream entities at once, our reach expands even more quickly.

Finally, as we continue our efforts with incredible partners who have expertise and relationships that address each part of the food ecosystem, we are working to align and connect their efforts, and to identify the partners who go beyond individual organizational and programmatic goals to shape and shift the broader food system.  These same partners are also helping us to build a greater understanding of what defines a healthy, equitable food system, so we can tell where there are gaps and how best to measure our communal progress.

We must approach this work thoughtfully and holistically, rather than focusing our efforts on one particular lever of change.

Learn more…

In the rest of this blog series, we will share our tactics and the perspectives of some of our partners in this work. We will talk about the different funding instruments we use to support our partners, and emphasize the importance of the people on the ground. Finally, we’ll discuss impact measurement and the future of food access initiatives.

This work is important to us because everyone should have access to healthy, good-tasting, affordable food. Stay tuned for more about our healthy food access work.