Demand for food grown locally has become a major trend. But local food also includes rising concern about ‘food deserts’, areas where residents have no easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables; the closure of local shops; health inequalities and the obesity. Add in convenience, new technology, and a few entrepreneurs and the result is an emerging redefinition of local stores.

What is changing?

The launch last year of the USDA’s Food Desert locator highlighted again the problem of access to fresh food. In the USA about 10% of the country has been designated a food desert, affecting some 23 million people. Similar concerns have been raised in the UK, where one estimate is that some 20% of rural areas and 25% of urban areas could be defined as food deserts, with the closure of small local stores. Definitions of food deserts differ – in the US it was one mile from a supermarket, in the case of the UK 500 metre walk to a shop with a good range of fresh fruit and vegetables – but the principle is the same: poor access.

QR codes – black and white patterned squares a bit like more complicated bar-codes that can interact with smart phone apps – are enabling a high tech approach to convenience: virtual shopping where you are. Supermarkets in Korea are setting up virtual storefronts in stations and on advertising hoardings. Using QR codes, consumers can then scan items on display with their phones for information, order them, pay for them and designate a time for delivery to their homes.

Elsewhere mobile stores are seeing a renaissance, bringing food to the community. Some are scaled down, pop-up supermarkets with 300 – 400 lines (compared to the 30,000 or so in a supermarket), where the truck is the store. In others, the truck brings a complete ‘shop’, complete with shelving with all the produce ready stacked which can be wheeled out and set up in a suitable location such as a village / church/ school hall. Others still are run as charitable endeavours to provide lower cost food and enrol households in the scheme which is run by volunteers.

Why is this important?

Food deserts are an important policy issue because they are often in poor areas where there are higher than average rates of obesity and other health problems. Poor nutrition is seen as a major part of the problem.

At present these two options for local stores and convenience – mobile and virtual stores- are separate and present opportunities in their own right. In the future they may combine to a greater or lesser extent.

Food shopping could become a social as well as a collaborative activity.

People in poor communities or the elderly do not necessarily have access to smart-phone technologies, making virtual stores a convenience and benefit primarily for tech savvy, well to-do consumers. But the virtual store could extend the mobile store, be in the local pub or small local corner shop; become part of the local infrastructure bringing convenience to remote areas. If necessary, customers could be assisted with their virtual store purchases by a local person plus a dedicated smart phone/ device. The mobile store could then not only bring the basics, but could deliver the produce on a regular schedule – with texts or tweets depending on the target group – to remind people. For those living alone, the system could help set up collaborative buying so that they could achieve better prices by buying large and sharing; or involve local producers so that they too could expand their markets.

However, important though it is, access to fresh food is not the only issue. Poor cooking skills, lack of understanding / knowledge of nutrition, cost of cooking – because of high energy prices, even unsafe streets all play a role. These new local stores could extend their activities into cooking, recipe advice, how to cook to reduce energy consumption, and how to make a little go a long way.  We might see a revival of shared cooking; traditionally villagers used to pay the local baker to use his oven to cook a Sunday meal.

Food shopping could become a social as well as a collaborative activity; it could bring a new income streams and footfall to small local businesses; and it could help address the obesity issue.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.