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Top>Opinion>What are food deserts?


Manao Kidachi

Manao Kidachi [Profile]

What are food deserts?

Manao Kidachi
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, and Director, Institute of Business Research, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Marketing and Distribution theory, food distribution analysis

Marketing and Distribution theory is originally the study of commercial transactions, but in recent years there has been vigorous research focusing on the connection between the distribution industry and communities, involving food retailers such as shopping streets and urban development. The food deserts that I will discuss below are communities that have lost their own functions due to the withdrawal of supermarkets and other food retailers from the area. (For details, see M.Kidachi, Food Deserts Issues and Perspective on Local Community Renaissance in Japan, Review of consumer co-operative studies, No.416, September 2010.)

UK food deserts and the evil supermarket theory

In the UK food deserts have been examined as a serious social issue since the 1990s. A general definition of a food desert is an urban district where it is difficult for consumers to purchase nutritious fresh produce because there are no food retailers within a 500-meter radius. Residents in such areas without a car have no choice but to do their daily shopping at small corner shops which have an insufficient selection of fresh vegetables and the like. As a result, these residents are subject to significant health hazards.

The primary cause of the emergence of food deserts in the UK is the strategy of store expansion adopted by major food retailers since the 1980s. This was done through the intensification of so-called scrap-and-build store development, which is the acceleration of new opening of huge superstores in the suburbs, while inner-city supermarkets are shut down. The strategy has benefited retailers in terms of efficiency of store operations and physical distribution, while simultaneously providing a more diverse product selection and comfortable shopping space for wealthier consumers with a high level of mobility. On the other hand, it has also deprived the lower income residents of city centers of a place to do their daily grocery shopping.

In fact there is no common understanding of the issue of British food deserts and their causes. To say that the problem lies in the detrimental effects of retail oligopolization is just one negative opinion. Nevertheless, more than 70% of the British retail food market has been captured by four major supermarket chains such as Tesco, and they undeniably hold a nearly exclusive right to dictate the conditions of access to food for consumers.

Food deserts stretching the length and breadth in Japan

Compared with food deserts in the UK, the phenomenon in Japan has a number of unique features. First of all, in contrast to the British problem of inner-city areas, the problem in Japan is spread all across the country. One point is that suburbs have been expanding randomly at the edges of cities since the era of Japan's high-speed economic growth. Recently, there has effectively been a great merger of the Heisei era in which former towns and villages absorbed into cities have turned into new suburbs of those cities. There, whole communities are emerging that are devoid of food retailers. Another point is that shopping conditions have deteriorated in rural areas, and particularly mountainous communities, ahead of cities and suburbs.

In Japan, too, the closing and withdrawal of supermarkets directly triggers the creation of food deserts. But a look at the background in Japan shows that a drop in the profitability of supermarket bussinesses-caused by the market conditions of progressive deflation and fierce competition among stores-is a key factor. At present there are probably not a great many supermarkets that could afford to respond to regional demand by maintaining or opening stores in such places. This issue cannot be explained away simply with an evil supermarket theory. Meanwhile, even if local governments tried to launch various supportive measures such as incentives for retailers and shopping buses, there is a limit to what they could do while agonizing over budget deficits. The evolution of Japanese food deserts is therefore intricately connected to the decline of the overall Japanese economy.

What of the future? Japan is undergoing population decline and population aging on a level that is exceptional worldwide. The proportion of those over 65 in this country will be about 40% of the population by 2050, compared with just over 20% in the UK and the US. At present, there are an estimated six million people here who are shopping-disadvantaged. Students in my class too, although immune for now, realize how close the problem is when they think about their grandparents' situation, for example. So it is already a family problem for them rather than someone else's business, and, as things stand, it will not be that long before they are saying, tomorrow it'll be me. It would be a tragedy for Japan-a country that strives to popularize Japanese cuisine throughout the world-to be listed centuries from now as a world heritage site for being the greatest food desert nation of the 21st century.

Basic issues for community regeneration

Although food shortages in Africa are undisputedly more serious, the problem of food deserts means the widening of social exclusion in mature wealthy nations, that is, the deprivation of the fundamental conditions for living in society. Expressions such as disadvantaged and desert indicate that this is a problem of disparity and the right to life. The first essential for sustaining "health" as guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution of Japan, is "being able to eat." Guaranteeing the conditions of access to food for all citizens, and especially the shopping-disadvantaged, is a basic point of welfare.

However, it may be difficult to draw up a resolution to the food desert problem and a spatial vision for community regeneration through policy debate alone. That is because the selection behavior of shopping is more widely connected with consumer autonomy and the quality of consumer life. Studies are therefore needed into the dynamic state of multilateral functions including the external effects that the retail industry can provide to consumers in communities through competition.

Our basic policy should be to extend the life-span of communities, as well as of businesses and organizations, in line with the 21st century market environment in which people tend to live longer and want to settle in one place. That would mean a shift in strategy, from focusing on growth to focusing on sustainability. By putting an end to 20th century bloating caused by prioritizing expansion, and to the myopic shortening of product and business life cycles, perseverance will prevail for the first time, and community-based long-term investment will become possible. Increasing the life-span of businesses, organizations, and communities provides the prospect of a solution to the food desert problem and an abundant food environment. The important thing is to take a positive view of increasing life-span rather than of aging.

Manao Kidachi
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, and Director, Institute of Business Research, Chuo University
Specializations: Marketing and Distribution Theory, Food Distribution Analysis
Born in Aomori Prefecture, Professor Kidachi received a PhD from Kyushu University. He has been in charge of Marketing and Distribution Theory at Chuo University since 1992. Professor Kidachi was a visiting professor at Cornell University in 1996, University of Edinburgh in 1997, and Monash University in 2005. His current positions include chairman for the Distribution Economics Society, member of the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market Advisory Committee, and more. Professor Kidachi's recent publications include: "Exporation into Modern Consumer Co-operative Studies" (co-author, Coop Shuppan), "Introduction to Modern Marketing and Distribution" (co-author, Yuhikaku), "Theoretical, Historical and Empirical Studies on Marketing and Distribution" (co-author, Chuo University Press), "Logistics and Retail Management" (co-translator, Hakuto-Shobo). His hobbies include tennis, playing the piano, and the Japanese tea ceremony (Urasenke).