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New Tool Helps Low-Income Communities Evaluate Food Retailers

| Written by Stacy Mitchell | No Comments | Updated on Apr 28, 2009 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at

In low-income neighborhoods that lack grocery stores and other retailers, city officials usually focus on finding the fastest way to fill the gaps.  They often measure their success in filling those gaps exclusively in terms of the square footage of new retail space and number of jobs created.

Within this framework, homegrown neighborhood businesses do not always measure up well.  While a major supermarket chain can create 50,000 square feet of active retail almost overnight, local businesses typically start out small and take time to grow and develop.  The specific business practices and long-term economic, community, and environmental implications of each business model (local and chain) are rarely given consideration in the context of a mandate to create as much retail as fast as possible.

To help citizens and policymakers better analyze the relative merits of different food retailers,Public Health Law & Policy and Food First have published the Sustainable Food Retail Framework (turn to page 26).  The framework sets out 17 positive qualities organized around five broad values:  fair food, local wealth, strong communities, good jobs, and a healthy environment.  Each section includes guidance for evaluating a particular retailer within a range.   The local wealth section focuses on the benefits of local ownership.

In addition to evaluating specific store proposals, the framework could be a helpful tool for communities to use in developing policy and deciding how best to direct and prioritize economic development resources.   It could also be incorporated into an Economic Impact Review ordinance.

The Sustainable Food Retail Framework was published as part of the Oakland Food Retail Impact Study.  The study uses the framework to evaluate two very different grocery stores planned for West Oakland, a neighborhood that has long struggled with a lack of retailers providing fresh food.

One of the proposed stores is a Fresh & Easy, a new chain of supermarkets in the western U.S. owned the British-based Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer with annual sales of $95 billion.

The other is People’s Grocery Market, which will be owned in part by a six-year-old nonprofit organization that has been operating a Mobile Market, a truck that sells fresh produce throughout Oakland.  The other half of the business will be owned by local investors, but the business plan for the 15,000-square-foot store, slated to open in 2010, calls for store employees to receive periodic stock equity grants that will allow them to buy out the investors over a ten-year period.

Although it lacks the deep pockets of Tesco and may need some initial support from the city, People’s Grocery has the potential to contribute more to the local economy with a smaller environmental footprint and greater community benefit, the study concludes.

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About Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and directs its Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, which produces research and analysis, and partners with a range of allies to design and implement policies that curb economic consolidation and strengthen community-rooted enterprise.  She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also produces a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin.  Connect with her on twitter and catch her TEDx Talk: Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy. More

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