The retail sector is the constellation of stores of all kinds and direct-to-consumer and other operational models that transact the final sale of food products to customers and consumers.
California’s healthy food retail and food business sector holds a wide range of interests and goals, from business owners, consumers, community residents, and others. Of all sectors, this sector may be what people are most familiar with, by way of everyone needing to obtain and eat healthy food every day. However, nearly one million Californians live in neighborhoods that lack a supermarket or full-service grocery store. Compared to predominately White neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods have access to only 52 percent as many supermarkets; Latinx neighborhoods have access to only 32 percent as many supermarkets as non-Latinx neighborhoods. This scarcity of healthy food access is a consequence of historic patterns of racially discriminatory land use and zoning patterns and racially biased investment practices. Yet the presence of a supermarket is not the only measurement of an equitable retail food environment. Other food retail models exist — including farmers’ markets, mobile vendors, and corner stores — but the accessibility and quality of the food they provide varies dramatically. Beyond traditional food retail outlets, alternative models that provide essential access for low-income consumers and consumers who are isolated and marginalized include food banks, food pantries, institutional food, and school food.
The retail sector is also an immense employment opportunity for millions of people. A significant number of low-income people and people of color are employed across food retail and food service — from stock clerks to cashiers, servers, delivery staff, food prep staff, janitors, and bussers. Although these employment opportunities are abundant, they often lack job security and career growth opportunities, thus limiting the futures of those in the industry, such as youth workers, people without advanced degrees, and part-time workers. Of the nearly 400,000 food retail workers in California, the majority work in jobs at or below minimum wage, and often face strenuous and dangerous working conditions.
Key factors that have shaped inequities in the food retail sector include the following.
- Inequitable access to food, healthy food in particular, manifests in a number of ways to consumers. Healthy food access encompasses proximity, convenience, affordability, healthfulness, variety, and cultural relevance, among other factors. For proximity and convenience, the placement and distance of retail outlets should be within easy reach of shoppers of all income levels. Today, too many people cannot walk to a store in their neighborhood, and they often lack convenient public transportation, or face long rides and several transfers to access healthy food, which is even harder to do with small children and heavy packages in tow. Even motorists can be challenged by the high cost of gas needed to get to a store. For affordability, the price of food should not be prohibitive. In low-income areas and communities of color, if grocery stores are present at all, prices can sometimes be higher than in more affluent areas. Furthermore, food should be healthy and varied, full of options for fresh produce, whole grains, lean proteins, little or no added sodium or sugar, and healthy fats. The same areas that lack access to healthy foods in stores are routinely inundated with fast- food restaurants, convenience stores, and liquor stores that offer foods fried in saturated fat, highly processed snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol — all at rock-bottom prices.
- Government nutrition assistance programs lack viability and frequently are inadequate. Although a crucial safety net to millions of low-income individuals and families, the benefits paid to recipients of federal nutrition assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), do not cover the full cost of monthly food expenses. Nearly a third (32 percent) of households supported by SNAP and nearly a quarter (23 percent) of households enrolled in WIC reported visiting a food pantry to feed their families. Further, such programs have been mischaracterized and stigmatized, so that many who are eligible are deterred from applying — including immigrants, the working poor, and two-parent households. In California, 4.4 million people living in 2.1 million households are enrolled in SNAP — or 37.2 percent of low-income Californians. Moreover, consumers’ ability to redeem the benefits depends upon retailers’ willingness to accept the benefit payment programs. Large chain stores tend to do so, while smaller grocers may not, compounding the challenges facing consumers who must find a participating store in order to use these benefits.
- Recent innovation in the food retail environment underscores economic development and entrepreneurial disparities. For example, food trucks and “pop up” restaurants have become increasingly popular, yet challenging state and municipal regulations about establishing food retail businesses, local zoning, health, and safety permitting, and more. Such new operators have been able to access capital investment and financing to start these often hip, yet risky businesses, and have been able to navigate or skirt the regulatory system of permits and health inspections. This is a stark departure from the experiences of small-business, low-income entrepreneurs, particularly people of color, women, and immigrants, who are often criminalized for their street vending. As street vendors, they may be cited, fined, arrested, or have their equipment confiscated. Licensing and other permitting regulations, which require fees and costly prerequisites, can become an insurmountable barrier to the vendors, especially when combined with a lack of credit needed to gain initial financing to cover expansion costs.
- Substandard conditions of food environments generate environmental injustices in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In these communities, certain areas can be saturated and dense with liquor stores, where an atmosphere of loitering, public drinking, public urination, and other nuisance activity is rampant. Drive-through fast-food outlets can also foster public nuisance activity, including intrusive lighting, traffic congestion, and noise pollution. Poorly managed food retail stores and restaurants can engage in illegal waste disposal, which can foul the air, groundwater, and soil within a neighborhood. Such businesses may also fail to undertake regular maintenance, such as painting, landscaping, or structural repairs, leading to declining aesthetics of the neighborhood. This can compromise perception of neighborhood safety and invite over-policing and criminalization of residents of color. In neighborhoods such as these, property values can decline, stagnating home values, which in turn hampers household and community wealth creation. Additionally, the image of a declining neighborhood makes homes vulnerable to speculators who buy property at below-value prices, setting the stage for gentrification and displacement.
- Expand and improve healthy food retail. Several programs provide grants and loans to build new retail development or improve existing food outlets. On the federal level, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) has a proven track record of investing in underserved areas. Building upon the success of state and federal programs like the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) and HFFI, cities and metropolitan areas have launched their own local healthy retail financing programs, and several states have also created their own healthy food financing initiatives. Visit the Healthy Food Access Portal to learn more about state and regional HFFI policy efforts. Local and state government agencies and public utilities can also offer incentives, such as energy improvements and refrigeration equipment, to upgrade existing convenience and liquor stores that agree to expand access to healthy food.
- Adopt and enforce operating standards at existing stores. Some small grocery stores, particularly those that are principally liquor stores, continue to present problems for residents of low-income communities. State and local regulatory agencies can be engaged to use their power of zoning and land use rules and local “police powers” to penalize violations that degrade neighborhoods. These actions can be coupled with incentives to improve the stores’ provision of healthy food.
- Offer healthy food incentive programs that expand or match CalFresh/Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) dollars. Affordability is a top reason preventing families and households from obtaining healthy food and meals to eat. Recently, the City of Los Angeles passed an ordinance requiring all farmers’ markets to accept EBT and WIC benefits. Many other examples throughout the nation include the Boston Bounty Bucks in Boston, Massachusetts, DA BUX in Hawai’i, and SNAP to Health in Maryland. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service implemented the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) in Hampden County, Massachusetts, to match dollar-for-dollar fruit and vegetable spending to observe the effects on fruit and vegetable consumption. HIP participants were found to have spent 11 percent more SNAP benefits per month and consumed an additional quarter cup of fruits and vegetables per day than non-HIP participants. These programs, from the federal and local scale, are innovative ways to streamline access to healthy foods.
- Strengthen and improve worker protections. In the food retail and business sector, millions of workers experience substantial challenges in securing fair and living wages; ensuring safe working conditions; exercising collective bargaining; and obtaining other labor, health, and safety protections. The UC Berkeley Labor Center has studied food retail workers extensively and recommends collective bargaining and additional public policies to expand the potential of good food jobs in the retail and business sector. In California and federally, there is a movement behind raising the floor of minimum wages to $15 per hour, largely centralized in the food workers industry and supported by other sectors, such as health care and transportation. Because of the food retail sector’s reliance on “poverty wages,” policies could also reduce incentives and loopholes that allow employers to exploit part-time workers and non-unionized workers.
Equity In Action
- Northgate González Markets: The Northgate González Markets are a chain of more than 40 stores across Southern California owned by a family who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. The family started with a small corner store in Orange County, California, and now some of their stores are as large as 50,000 square feet. They serve predominately Latinx communities with their full-service groceries, and employees are drawn from the communities surrounding the stores. Three of the stores receive substantial investments from the FreshWork fund, providing resources to support efforts to bring healthy affordable food to low- and moderate-income communities. Northgate González Markets also runs Viva La Salud, a nationally recognized wellness program for community members and employees, offering health education, screenings, and services.
- City of New Orleans’ Fresh Food Retailers Initiative: The New Orleans’ Fresh Food Retailers Initiative makes $7 million available to spur the development of supermarkets and grocery stores in low-income areas. The program offers the financing for capital, real estate, and related expenses so that greater opportunities for employment and neighborhood revitalization are realized. The applicants must plan to either open a self-service supermarket or other grocery retail outlet with fresh and healthy foods; renovate and substantially improve a store’s ability to stock fresh fruits and vegetables; or develop a real estate project to lease space to a grocery retail tenant. The city’s $7 million is matched dollar for dollar by the city’s partner, Hope Enterprise Corporation, and The Food Trust is a partner organization helping to implement these funds.
Resources & Tools
- Healthy Food Access Portal: A partnership between PolicyLink, The Food Trust, and Reinvestment Fund, the Healthy Food Access Portal is a go-to resource for increasing access to healthy food. It is a web-based platform for data, research, and information developed by groups across the nation working to expand the retail options for healthy and affordable foods. It highlights promising practices and policies and provides opportunities for policymakers, advocates, and activists across the country to connect with each other. It also offers tools that can be used by entrepreneurs in the food system to aid their efforts to launch and finance an array of healthy food businesses.
- Center for Healthy Food Access: A project of The Food Trust, the Center for Healthy Food Access is a national collaboration to ensure that every child in the U.S. has access to nutritious, affordable food. It brings together partner organizations working on a wide range of strategies designed to expand access to healthy, affordable food in underserved and rural areas. The center uses a variety of approaches, including strengthening food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC, improving the quality of water and food in schools, and fostering economic development by encouraging the establishment of grocery stores and food businesses.