Innovators Should Turn to a Frontier as Challenging as Space: Food Poverty | Opinion

Reports are coming in from across the country highlighting yet another concern for people's health during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Food deserts," which the U.S. government defines as "neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources," are on the rise.

In a Chicago neighborhood, a grocery giveaway "put a spotlight on growing food deserts." In South Dallas, a city-supported store meant to serve one of these areas is in danger of closing. In northeast Oklahoma City, students and teachers are working to grow fresh fruits and vegetables so neighborhood residents won't have to travel 30 miles to get fresh produce.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that there are various ways to define food deserts, Voice of America reports that the pandemic is worsening conditions for 23.5 million Americans.

For years, government and health officials have lamented the problem. While she was First Lady, Michelle Obama declared eliminating food deserts a "primary goal" of her Let's Move campaign. After all, as Scientific American noted, "Where fresh foods are scarce, so is good health."

But the fact that food deserts continue to proliferate shows that big solutions are still missing.

I've spent my career in Silicon Valley, having co-founded Pandora Media, the music streaming service that began as some notes I scribbled on a yellow pad in my living room. For years, I've seen and worked with brilliant innovators who've designed an array of technologies to solve real-world problems. But all too often, the ideas that get people excited tend toward the futuristic, like rocket ships and quantum computers. In an unequal society, these sorts of things don't benefit those most in need. I prefer to direct my attention toward making sure that everyone has the basics—things like affordable housing, personal safety, access to the Internet, and healthy food.

To be fair, there are innovators working on all these things in ways big and small. But when I looked into grocery stores, I came to see them as the $700 billion industry that Silicon Valley forgot. Lots of attention was going into a slew of delivery apps for customers who can afford to pay the higher prices for convenience. But by comparison, little was being done to make more grocery stores available—and the food in them more affordable—even though the overwhelming majority of Americans still prefer buying their food in person.

Some pilot programs have been launched in individual neighborhoods. For example, some well meaning entrepreneurs are raising funds to bring stores to certain areas, or trying to get more fresh produce into convenience stores, or establishing traveling pop-up shops. But we need innovators to focus on macro solutions.

When I turned to this issue, I saw how technology could help reverse the economic pressures that have prevented supermarket chains from launching new stores in certain areas. Through extensive meetings with industry leaders, I came to understand the root of their concerns about the viability of these stores.

In a nutshell, the supermarket industry operates on very small profit margins. The Food Industry Association reports that net profits of grocery store chains in recent years have hovered around 2 percent, and the national average has never even cracked the 3 percent mark for as long as the association has tracked the numbers, dating back to the 1980s. (For some insight on why that is, see this Quora thread.)

Against this backdrop, the industry fights "shrinkage," which comes in two forms: human error and theft. In some stores this shrinkage can be so bad that those thin profits get erased. This can happen anywhere, but many industry leaders tell me they tend to see greater levels of theft in low-income areas. A study by California Food Policy Advocates backs that up, noting that "stores in low-income locations may experience a higher level of shoplifting." And the Urban Institute notes that "shoplifting tends to be more problematic for businesses located near city centers, high-traffic areas, schools, and areas of concentrated low-income residents."

It's important to make clear that stereotypes about who steals from supermarkets do not hold up. "Black and Hispanic shoppers are no more likely to shoplift than those who are white," a study found. Also, people over 55 "are not less likely to shoplift than those who are under 35."

Still, legitimate concerns about losses to shrinkage are preventing grocery store chains from opening in food desert areas.

The grocery industry is, to use the Silicon Valley term, "ripe for disruption." 2020 has made more people aware of the tremendous inequities in our society. It's time we all do what we can to solve them. Take, for example, the Stanford Poverty & Technology Lab, which is focusing on technology-based solutions to help people in need have greater access to education, jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities and more. And for my part, I decided to tackle one aspect of food deserts—shrinkage—head-on. In my current venture, we're focused on solving this through computer vision that tracks and charges for every item in a store, so honest shoppers don't have to wait in line and the relatively few dishonest ones are prevented from stealing—thereby alleviating food deserts on a national scale.

I call on all innovators to use their skills to address the wide variety of obstacles that prevent people from having basics. There's a lot we can do to alleviate suffering.

Will Glaser is co-founder of Pandora Media and founder and CEO of Grabango.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.