Human Stories

Food and Place | Does Where You Live Influence Your Eating Habits?

Where food is sold is not decided randomly and there are many factors that go into determining where you can buy certain foods. But have you ever considered what goes into making those decisions, and what consequences they can have on our own behaviours? Here’s how they can affect our health, society as a whole, and even generate better food environments for the future.

Food outlets are all around us, and not one of them is located where it is by accident. From the smallest street vendor to the largest supermarket, every business selling food is doing so with a simple goal in mind – to be successful. And to be successful, you need to be prepared. Knowing your customer and more crucially, knowing how to reach your customer, is everything to the success of any business. This is no different in the food sector. However, food is a little different to other products out there.

Understanding food environments

According to the European Public Health Alliance, food environments are defined as ‘the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural contexts in which people engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food’.1 Each one of those contexts are complex and with many layers, and it is these complexities that businesses, academics and governments alike are eager to understand. 

Most crucially however, is understanding that deciding on the best place to set up shop for businesses goes far beyond the shop space itself. Sure, a food outlet must be attractive and near to people, but it also needs to be near its customers for the business to thrive. Business owners also need to consider the movement and behaviour of people - from local population density and footfall to transport links and seasonal trends in potential customer preferences.2 If people are to make purchases, they need ease of access to what they want and what they can afford. If you’re a small business, this information can be crucial to setting up shop successfully, especially as you can only really do it once. And for those businesses who can afford it, the prospect of using geomarketing models in location strategy can become a tantalising prospect. Not only can it give retailers a better understanding of their customers’ movements and needs, but it can also offer insight into their competitors’ likely next steps.3

But what happens when you’re big enough to open enough stores that you can test your own data? Successful supermarkets and fast food chains can have hundreds, if not thousands of outlets globally, and with that rich amount of data they can dig even deeper into what sells and where. That data can range from supermarket features such as visibility and ease of access, to characteristics of the area itself such as demographic makeup and competitor growth. Success breeds success, and big businesses have the money and the analytical know-how to determine the optimum sites to set up shop, knowing what is most profitable to them by square foot.

The wild west of food location

The world is a diverse place, and large food companies are better equipped than ever with a multitude of tactics and tools at their disposal to capitalise on any openings in the market. From lobbying groups that could sway policy, to new technologies and legal expertise, these tools give large food companies the ability to venture out globally if they want to expand or if a current market they exist in isn’t going in their favour.

Coca Cola and PepsiCo are prime examples of this. The message that sugary products can contribute to obesity is starting to take a foothold in many of the countries these companies have traditionally possessed stable and lucrative markets in, including the country where they were both founded, the US.4 However, these companies have now accumulated such a large amount of data on where is selling and where isn’t, that they, like any business that is losing profits, have decided to refocus their efforts. In other sectors, such a shift normally has no effect on the consumer except their spending habits, but with food, it is instead their eating habits that can be altered - the latter having much more serious consequences.

Over the past decades, both Coca Cola and PepsiCo have redirected their international attention to focus on low and middle income countries. Mexico, being particularly hard hit, recently ranked first in mortality and morbidity attributable to sugar sweetened beverages and there are multiple factors at play generating this unfortunate outcome.5,6 Clean drinking water is scarce in large parts of the country, and with Coca Cola being roughly the same price or sometimes even cheaper than bottled water, many turn to it as a core source of hydration and calories. Coca Cola’s prolificacy in Mexico is also attributable to how embedded the product has become in Mexican culture, with some Indigenous communities even involving it as a part of their religious ceremonies.7

McDonalds has also made shifts globally to where it has seen gaps in the market. Almost uniquely, the fast food outlet is able to pick practically any location in the world due to its huge global brand, but its success after entering the food environments of other continents has been down to its integration into the cultures surrounding them, much like Coca Cola. McDonalds may keep hold of certain items wherever it goes to retain core parts of its brand, such as the McFlurry and Happy Meals, but it will localise its approach depending on the country or region. For example, McDonalds sells the Teritama Burger in the spring menu and the Tsukimi Burger in the Japanese autumn menu, whereas it will sell the McSpicy Paneer in India - both targeting regional and seasonal preferences.8,9

In Mexico, consumption of carbonated soft drinks is among the highest in the world. Contributing factors include the hot climate, relentless marketing and because people at all income levels drink soda. (Getty/Reda&Co)

The consequence of movement

Even when policies and laws are in place to explicitly curb big business, competition for success usually finds a way. For example, when the Sunday Trading Act 1994 was passed in the UK, businesses were legally allowed to start trading on Sundays, but with the proviso that if the outlet was over 3,000 square feet, aka if it was a large store, they could only trade for 6 hrs in the day.10 In principle this would bring some equity across the market as it allows the smaller independent outlets a few less competitive hours in the week. Many bigger businesses also bought and moved to bigger stores outside of the inner cities and had seemingly no means of accessing this new market. However, this shift in legislation simply birthed the rise of the big business mini-mart – Sainsbury’s opened ‘Sainsbury’s Local’ stores, Tesco launched ‘Tesco Express’ to name but a few, and it was done with the express intention of using those laws to re-enter cities and regain access to those markets.11

However, there are knock-on effects of this constant race to success. On a microscopic level, the success of a business – benefiting its employees and contributing to economic growth – is of course a good thing. But, if this is mismanaged on a macroscopic level, even if the food sold is healthy it can have severe effects. 

When a supermarket moves into an area, it can push smaller businesses out using prices they can’t compete with, leaving the local community dependent on the large outlet for their food instead. And it’s not only the prices which smaller businesses can’t compete with. Larger outlets can test the success rate of the location of goods within a store too, tactfully moving and presenting certain products to achieve the optimum selling result. Although a food producer rather than a food outlet, Dole Plc. is a perfect example of this meticulous attention to detail only large companies can afford. Dole is one of the largest producers of fruit and vegetables in the world, and they have honed the precise colour of bestselling bananas down to a science, calculating that Pantone colour 12-0752 (Buttercup) sells more than the slightly brighter Pantone colour 13-0858 (Vibrant Yellow).12  

This may all seem great for the consumer, such attention to detail for their expense and affordable low prices, but this can all change if a supermarket decides to pull the plug on a certain location. If an area becomes less lucrative, or a supermarket has intel on a potentially better location, nothing is stopping an exodus which removes that food option from the consumer.13 And unlike before the existence of the supermarket, where a small local business closure would simply mean us going to a neighbouring local store, the consumer’s options for affordable and healthy food where they live all of a sudden becomes very limited. This sudden vacuum is called a food desert, and it can be devastating to a community.14

When supermarkets move into an area, they often push out smaller grocery shops. If an area subsequently becomes less lucrative, or a supermarket has intel on a potentially better location, nothing is stopping an exodus which removes that food option from the consumer. This contributes to the development of food deserts: unreliable access to affordable and nutritious food. (Getty/Benjamin Rondel)

Learn more about food deserts here

Bias and discrimination

The most concerning consequence of limited access to local food is what happens to the people whose choice is taken away. Food deserts aren’t just formed by large food outlets leaving an area, they can also be formed by such outlets never wanting to enter an area in the first place. ‘Supermarket redlining’ is where such businesses leave or avoid areas they have calculated as too high a risk in urban and low-income areas to be a success, instead going to more affluent suburban areas. The top line reasoning can be lower overheads and reduced crime risk, but the bottom line is that such an avoidance can deprive many of the people who need it most of convenient and accessible fresh food in their local area, having severe knock-on effects on health.14 Studies show that poor nutrition can have an effect on concentration and cognitive performance, and so when taking into consideration what effect this can have on schools in these areas, the negative consequence of food deserts can create a vicious cycle.14

Regulating food and place

These complications with food and place aren’t going unnoticed. Governments, academics and medical experts alike are making concerted efforts to try and combat the effects of these geographical shifts. They too are using data to pinpoint trends in food environments, but rather than being profit driven, they are using it in the attempt to combat obesity and poor nutrition. The marketing and food pricing used in conjunction with location is one key area of focus, as well as bills and policy passed to encourage both businesses to help diversify their pool and also support consumers to shift away from the unhealthy stores they’re susceptible to visit.16 Governments don’t usually go as far as banning certain stores outright from a country, not just for potential legal reasons, but because another store can just as easily swoop in and take that fallen outlet’s space. Instead, administrations must take a more targeted, calculated approach.

In 2017, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced fast food outlets would not be allowed to open within 400m of schools.17 The reason was to restore a healthy balance in the food environments of the UK’s capital. Cheap, easy access to meals containing high levels of calories, fat, salt and sugar is appealing to children in any setting, but London was slowly seeing a steady rise in stores selling such meals, to a point that certain deprived areas had the highest density of fast food outlets in England.18 Although there are many factors contributing to childhood obesity, the UK government felt the need to act. 

Bailouts and funding can also contribute to restoring balance in food environments. In the city of Birmingham, US, food deserts are so abundant that an estimated two thirds of the population do not have easy affordable access to fresh food. Following the bankruptcy of supermarket Winn-Dixie, the local government acted to combat the downward trend by providing an incentives package of $640k to Food Giant supermarket to set up there afterwards. This $640k is part of a $2m store recruitment fund helping to combat unhealthy food environments found in the city.19

Combining both policy change and subsidies can help deprived food environments even more, with transport being a key factor in this. Administrations can maximise their public transport links and the scheduling of transport for deprived areas when transport infrastructure is strong.20 But at the other end of the spectrum, governments need to also take into consideration the transport logistics when getting to remote, isolated areas, and the freight costs associated with transporting food once the route is resolved, especially when it comes to fresh and healthy produce. These extra costs can easily fall onto these small isolated communities, but governments have the ability to curb this with policy that allows for subsidies to match these extra transport costs, taking some of this financial burden away from these communities.21

In isolated communities, the logistical challenges of supplying these areas may restrict food affordability and quality. Providing subsidies and improving transport networks can take some of the financial burden away from these communities, thus improving food choices and food security.  (Getty/Westend61)

Keeping the free market free

However, making such changes isn't easy. It took the London Plan 2021 for Khan’s initiative to come to pass, four years after his announcement in 2017. Endemic food deserts are difficult to fight, even when lucrative incentive deals are set up to counter them. And one simple, major reason for these difficulties is that you can’t simply tell people what to do. People have the right to eat what they want regardless of the health connotations and it can become tricky when you start telling an individual how to run their business. If a food outlet is small, you could be running them out of business, if they are large, they will use all the power they have to prevent their success from being stifled. It’s human nature, so striking that balance is key in order to keep the positives from both sides of the argument in play.

The digital marketplace

Despite all this, the definition of place shifts the more technology develops. After covid-19, more consumers have become comfortable ordering food online, with over a third of consumers now preferring to do their groceries online, redefining the whole premise of the store.22 But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Strategies are already in place to compete for the prime digital real estate – from instant deliveries to providing omni-channel offerings with physical and digital purchasing options, inventive solutions are everywhere.23

And defensive mechanisms are already in use against those digital ‘spaces’ that have been perceived to be going too far. Grocery apps also exploded over lockdown, creating ‘dark stores’ in the process – unused buildings in the heart of cities to ensure rapid delivery. Complaints and pushback against noise and disruption has already resulted in their growth shrinking in Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where such ‘stores’ are now officially banned.24 

Future progress will always be made, and whether it’s always successful or not, the ambition and drive behind it will always be there too. And this can be a good thing, so long as the impetus to understand food environments, both physical and digital, pushes on with it. It is up to governments and businesses alike to keep both the economy and society healthy, and so long as growth is overseen responsibly, there’s no reason why it can’t be.

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