According to the USDA, 23 million Americans live in "food deserts"—areas without ready access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food. And that doesn’t just mean a less interesting diet. One study, focusing on Chicago, found that residents who lived without proper grocery stores, but within range of fast food, were more likely to die, or suffer, from diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
But one group of enterprising business school graduates thinks the answer could be shipping containers—a popular choice for social initiatives these days. Stockbox Grocers has a plan to sell a range of fresh food, meat, and dairy in converted shipping containers, stationing mini-outlets on rented parking lots. The group opened its first prototype two weeks ago in the Delridge area of Seattle. It wants to open two permanent sites in early 2012, and at least two more later in the year.
Carrie Ferrence, Stockbox’s cofounder, says the response so far has been promising. "The community has been really supportive of having access to good food. There is a level of education we need to do. But in the short period we’ve been in Delridge, we’ve been blown away by the level of engagement people have around food, and this as a food option."
Stockbox picked Delridge because car-less residents currently have a 45-minute bus ride to the nearest decent grocery store.
"It’s mostly gas stations and convenience stores. There aren’t even many restaurants. While there are stores within a couple of miles, there are no direct bus lines. It’s difficult to get out of the community, and get somewhere with greater access," Ferrence says.
"Location matters," says Mari Gallagher, an expert on food access issues. Solutions to the food desert problem have ranged from encouraging big stores like Walmart, to new transport services, to food trucks (see Detroit and Chicago).
The advantage of shipping containers is that they are relatively cheap compared to bricks & mortar; they are flexible; and Stockbox can work on format designs off-site. The permanent stores will have a full HVAC system for heating and refrigeration, as well as enough water.
Stockbox’s founders are graduates of Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s MBA program, which fosters "sustainable business" entrepreneurs. Ferrence and her partner Jacqueline Gjurgevich, who graduated in June, developed the idea during their second year, and have since raised about $50,000, including $20,000 via Kickstarter. The company is for-profit, though the founders say they are not expecting to become rich.
Ferrence says it’s too early to say whether the model can be replicated outside the Northwest. But she says the aim of Stockbox is not only to help solve the food desert problem, but wider community issues.
"Our goal is to bring food back into community, and that is something that resonates in all kinds of places. And we also think that to grow to scale we need to work with different communities."
[Hat Tip: Inhabitat]