A Missed Opportunity

By
Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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“It’s not pretty. It’s not happy,” says a local while in search of fresh bananas and oranges inside a disheveled inner-city store.

Not long ago, this location hustled mostly smokes, beer and neighborhood banter—certainly not anything fresh and edible. That changed recently.

The store, still ragged and unkempt, introduced a small selection of fresh produce, attracting young mothers who have little access to suburban supermarkets. The store is part of a story whose plot is just beginning to be told, but whose end remains much in question. The story is food deserts—the countless urban venues and rural enclaves where finding a fresh pear or a bag of crunchy carrots is as challenging for residents as spotting a local grocer.

In a February 2010 video, first lady Michelle Obama shared a vision: to vanquish childhood obesity and eliminate food deserts, which affect 23.5 million Americans, including more than 6 million children, who rely mostly on c-stores and fast-food eateries for their meals. Her vision explicitly included c-stores.

Obama’s goal is noble, if not ambitious: to eliminate food deserts in just seven years, with the broader aspiration of eliminating childhood obesity.

“We’re setting people up for failure if we don’t fix this,” she says in the video. Toward that end, she helped launch Let’s Move!, a nonprofit started with $400 million in seed money to work with retailers across the country to deliver more healthy food options to all Americans.

“If we know it can be done, let’s move, let’s get it done,” she says in the Let’s Move! video. “Let’s give our kids everything they need, and everything they deserve to be the best that they can be.”

If only actions matched words.

CSP spent three months reaching out to the first lady and Let’s Move! executive director Robin Schepper for an interview.

We were realistic. For Michelle Obama, we reduced our request to a response to a few emailed questions. For Schepper, we asked for 15 minutes of time by phone if an in-person were not convenient.

After more than three-dozen emails and voice messages and conversations with an ascending order of spokespeople, I received a voice message from Schepper just days before our deadline. “I apologize that we’re not able to do an interview with you. We’re just swamped with everything. … Please take this call as an apology and wish you best of luck in the future.”

 In an email sent to the first lady’s office just a week earlier, I wrote, “I believe that a 15-minute interview with Robin and a modest five-question email interview with the first lady will deliver a dividend any investor would crave.”

If Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move! team are truly serious about eradicating food deserts, if they are truly sincere about transforming how c-stores conduct business, they need to talk to us. Why not agree to a short interview that will reach more than 100,000 top-level executives representing nearly the entire convenience channel?

For the record, I support their goal. C-stores should be encouraged—not required—to introduce fresh, healthy alternatives, such as yogurt, bananas, energy bars, carrot sticks, hardboiled eggs, etc. Many operators, including a large number of major and mid-size operations, do so already. What perhaps we don’t do as well is create special “healthy zones” or market healthy options just as groceries frequently cite better-for-you products across their aisles.

C-stores have a role to play, and our hope is that our cover story gives you pause and incentive to invest in providing your customers with healthier solutions.

The first lady and the executive director of Let’s Move! also have a role to play. And as it relates to talking to c-stores, they’re no different than the shuttered groceries of inner cities— they just closed the door on you. 

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