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The Role of Grocery Retailers in the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

Contributors: Blake Weber

In September 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration announced its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, a multi-action plan to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and diet-caused diseases in the U.S. Food insecurity affects 12.9% of families in America, with single-parent-run households being disproportionately affected. Further, ongoing inflation and continued resource shortages across the globe are pushing families toward food stamps and pantries more than ever before. 

The plan consists of a philanthropic, business, and academic approach to improve affordability, nutrition, and education surrounding individuals’ food situations and decision-making, with a goal of completely ending hunger by 2030. For the retail industry, this has significant implications for grocers across the U.S.  

Below, we explore the five pillars of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and dive deeper into the role that grocery retailers will need to play to help it succeed.

Improving Affordability, Nutrition, and Education Around Food  

The National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health consists of five pillars of action with different approaches to tackling food insecurity. While some address financial issues around hunger, others support making nutritional, healthy, and educated decisions around grocery shopping and overall health.  

Pillar 1: Improving Access and Affordability 

One of the most critical issues behind food insecurity and hunger is poverty. Although government programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) exist, they aren’t doing enough. Think about individuals who are barely above the SNAP salary requirement that are excluded from this benefit or the individuals who must drive more than 30 minutes to get to a full-service grocery store. Pillar 1 is focused on improving food access and affordability by advancing economic security, increasing access to free school meals, and expanding SNAP eligibility to more populations. 

Pillar 2 and Pillar 3: Integrating Nutrition and Health and Making Healthy Choices  

Another aspect of the national hunger challenge is the lack of nutritional food. While Pillar 2 focuses on the manufacturers’ role in producing nutritional food and Pillar 3 focuses on the shopper choosing those healthy products, they’re both equally important. Often times, a bag of chips is cheaper than fruits and vegetables, so for individuals with a limited budget for food, making a healthier choice can be difficult. 

Incorporating education and strategy for eating healthy on a budget is necessary. Knowing the nutritional facts of products through thorough food labeling and making educated choices is particularly important. The plan of action consists of programs supporting nutrition counseling, prioritizing low-sugar and nutrition-dense food, and increasing healthy food availability as well as education around grocery shopping. 

Pillar 4: Promoting Physical Activity 

Physical fitness contributes greatly to overall health and well-being. With the popularization of streaming services, video games, and mobile devices, Americans are more sedentary than ever. The global average screen time sits at about 7 hours, whereas exercise averages around 20 minutes. In this increasingly technological world, it’s going to be key to emphasize the importance of being active. As part of this pillar, organizations like the YMCA and MyFitnessPal are donating diet and nutrition tracking services as well as providing safe and healthy play environments for kids as part of the effort to revitalize physical activity. 

Pillar 5: Enhancing Research  

Another part of tackling national hunger is simply just knowing more. Deepening our understanding of the challenges that individuals face when grocery shopping can help us create innovative solutions for the future. We can see obvious discrepancies in nutrition literacy, access, and affordability; however, learning how to address these issues will take a holistic learning approach to identify barriers and then conquer them. As part of this pillar, the Biden-Harris Administration plans to bolster funds to improve metrics, data collection, and research that informs nutrition and food equity and access. 

How Are Grocers Playing a Role in the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health? 

As part of this plan, many grocers are already taking action to support these efforts on hunger, nutrition, and health. Grocery stores will play a significant role in the success of this strategy, as they serve as “accessible, convenient, community-based destinations” for food access and education. In other words, grocery stores serve as the heart for feeding a community, so when grocery stores don’t carry nutrient-dense and affordable products, the community feels that impact. This can be specifically seen in rural communities, where people might have to drive more than 30 minutes to find a produce section. These “food deserts” occur because it’s often not profitable for grocery stores to locate in rural and low-income places. However, the lack of nutritious and healthy options to people can be a contributing factor to the increasing amounts of hunger and diet-caused diseases in the U.S.  

Challenges for Grocery Retailers

Certain locations for grocery stores are not attractive or even possible due to operational and building costs, infrastructure, etc. Food expenditure increases as income level rises, which often means fewer food options in low-income or low-population areas. Food delivery, in general, requires adequate roadways, parking, and space, so when small urban centers or country roads don’t provide that, it makes it a challenge for grocers to locate there.  

Grocery profit margins are typically very slim, which is why location is such an essential decision-making factor. However, these supply chain and location issues can be solved by optimizing grocery stores’ plans and strategies to fit the environment they’re serving. In order to overcome these food deserts, grocers are going to explore innovative strategies to reach these communities and teach them about choosing nutritional options.  

A major obstacle grocers face when serving these disadvantaged areas is sourcing items at an affordable price. For large grocers, sourcing is somewhat easier because of their economies of scale. Unfortunately, for smaller and independent grocers who typically serve these areas, they’re unable to benefit from economies of scale. However, there are innovative ways that grocers can address these obstacles. Take, for example, Swedish grocery store Lifvs. Lifvs uses artificial intelligence to run unstaffed mini grocery stores in rural areas, where shoppers use their mobile devices to both access the store and make purchases. Low store operating costs and almost non-existent labor costs allow this business model to effectively serve low-population, rural areas. 

Additionally, supply chain factors, like raw material shortages, labor availability, and transportation, are crucial for grocers to consider when deciding on location. During the pandemic, out-of-stocks became a frequent occurrence as consumer demand skyrocketed and supply chain difficulties spiraled. As this occurred, many grocers shifted their “just in time” inventory planning to increase safety stock. In the grocery industry, this switch is especially dangerous because of the various and often short shelf-lives of products that can result in profit loss if not sold in time. Labor availability also became, and still is, an issue across industries. Underserved areas may also have fewer individuals available to work, but this can also be an opportunity to raise up a local population and increase income in the area. Further, grocers can help alleviate some supply chain burdens by putting a larger focus on local farmers and small businesses and brands within those communities. 

Even with the obstacles discussed, grocers must find a way to balance success and service to ensure underrepresented locations have access to healthy essentials. As technology evolves, grocers can leverage new opportunities to supplement and improve brick-and-mortar stores. For example, meal delivery platforms and delivery services can be used to reach those who are unable to access the stores. This can pair with the new SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot that is being offered in several states. This pilot program allows participants to use their SNAP benefits to purchase groceries online and experience pick-up and delivery options. 

Other initiatives, such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, strive to provide healthier options for households in food deserts by incentivizing grocers to open and maintain locations in those areas. Creating this convenience is beneficial, but without educational outreach about healthier options, it’s only a step in the right direction. The education component has been proven critical, as supermarkets opening in food deserts aren’t a guarantee for healthier food choices 

Why Get Involved? 

Although the motivation to participate may be intrinsic, getting involved can also be economically advantageous for grocers. Leveraging innovative technology and new store formats – backed by an initiative to further drive food security and affordability – can make it easier for grocery stores to expand into food deserts and new markets.  

Further, it’s also important to consider that consumers care about the role that organizations play in social responsibility – in fact, 36% of consumers reported that they would increase the amount they spend on goods and services if they were buying from a socially responsible brand. As we discussed earlier, many grocers and companies are already taking action. For example, Publix committed to donating $3.85 million to 22 Feeding America food banks in efforts to put free fruits and vegetables into mobile food shelters. Through philanthropic efforts and community-based strategies, grocery stores can make a real impact on food insecurity and diet. 

Looking Forward: The National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

Getting started is going to require having the correct systems and technologies – and strategy – in place to address these challenges. Either way, the grocery industry is going to be heavily influenced by this five-pillar plan. Now is the time for grocers to brainstorm innovative solutions for the improvement of food insecurity and nutrition or partner with industry experts for further guidance.  

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Contributions from Leah Harding

Tags: Retail Trends