Our food desert journey.

BRR is an established architecture firm with deep roots in the retail and grocery sectors. In our continuous efforts to remain relevant and of value to our customers, we have created “Innovation” teams aimed solely at researching and examining leading trends and market trajectories that might contribute to advancing cutting edge designs. We recently completed a design competition where the challenge was to tackle the weighty and timely problem of food deserts in our communities.

Let me first provide a little background information on how this all began.

No grocery stores? No grocery stores!

BRR already represents a large number of top grocery operators in the U.S., so designing yet another grocery store solution may not have fostered any internal excitement. Dave Schukai, Senior Vice President, told us about a neighborhood near our office that would be defined as a “food desert” and that perhaps we should explore architectural solutions as a means to address this situation. We talked about the many negatives attributed with food deserts, and soon realized how serious a problem they are. This would be the perfect challenge for our people to resolve in a competition!

We invited colleagues from across our firm to participate. We explained that there were only three rules: 1) use the site that we have identified, 2) the (fictitious) construction budget must not exceed $500,000, and 3) the solution must not be a grocery store.

Even though the slim list of parameters initially caused some trepidation, by the end of the week, we had nine design teams of varying sizes ready to compete. We gave the teams just four weeks to research the problem, create and present their solutions.

Pencils Down!

The month flew by and the day of presentations arrived.

Our teams dove in to study and understand the problem of food deserts, with most teams adhering to the guidelines. Some solutions excelled from an architectural aesthetic, some considered the sustainability and viability of such a venture, while others took a more playful approach. For example, one team completely disregarded the rules and the site they were given, and instead chose a site with an abandoned car wash structure. The team argued it saved money and that car wash vacancies will increase as our views toward cars and the environment change.


Common Threads

As varied as the entries were, several common strategies stitched them together: the need for education, partners and professional management.

Research revealed that educational programming would be necessary to the sustainability of the store. In many food desert neighborhoods, there are often educational or language barriers that keep people from making healthy decisions even if good, nutritious food is available. Teaching people to choose and prepare food that is good for them is so important but does not have to cost a lot of money. One notable design featured something as simple as on-site placards communicating walking distances around the site, along with the calories burned. It was a clever way to share how simply walking around one’s own neighborhood can put them on a healthier path.

Partner Up!

Another common strategy: aligning the design concept with existing community outreach organizations to maximize effectiveness and stretch resources. Most communities already have a variety of existing outreach programs. Solutions might focus on means to assist existing groups in distributing food and providing fresh food destinations where none existed before. The designs that placed emphasis on these types of partnerships seemed to provide a more sustainable solution than those that did not. Teams also discussed that even though grocery operators could not find viable ways to operate in these food desert communities, they might still be considered as part of the solution. Should grocery chains keep closer watch on expiration dates on food labels and donate those items versus sending them to the landfill, they may be able to contribute to the food bank operations which then feed into the community. Grocery stores could receive tax incentives for contributing to these food insecure communities.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Finally, it became clear to us that for a program to succeed and thrive, some caliber of a “professional” management structure will be required. The management system for these food destinations will have to be less like a volunteer-run community “pea patch,” and more like a corporate structure where “employee” roles and expectations are clearly defined. However, it is still very important to have large participation from the community residents. A pride of ownership is essential for the longevity and sustainability of the project.

In fact, the winning solution in the competition was selected not necessarily because they had the most creative or aesthetically pleasing design, but because they had devoted the most thought toward the partnerships and governance of how a successful food oasis should be structured. They had taken a business-minded approach which was based on alliances and phased its growth based on increasing success and stability – very much like how a grocery chain thinks – except relying on partnering with established charitable groups as for resources.

What’s Next?

What started out, or so we thought at the time, as a simple design competition with a clear beginning and end, turned into an eye-opening epiphany for us. Our Grocery Innovation Team now has a better idea as to the wealth of creative, smart and compassionate designers working in our offices. And, we’re asking ourselves more questions: How can BRR contribute to resolving this issue?  What are our next steps?

Since the competition ended, we learned of a program led by a very dedicated entrepreneur here in the Kansas City metro area with a program which is not only sustaining itself, it’s thriving. We are already in touch with him, learning more and planning on volunteering at his facility.

And, we will continue to look for similar, successful food desert solutions and learn about just what it takes to reverse the cycle of food deficiency in our communities. Strangely, even though we don’t know where this endeavor will take us, we’re super excited to find out where this journey will lead. We’re excited to share our findings with you as we continue this journey!

About the author:

Doug Livingston, Associate, AIA, graduated from Washington State University with Bachelor of Architecture degree. Doug has 30 years of experience working on a variety of project types, including grocery, big-box retail, mixed-use and fuel stations. Before joining BRR, he spent 11 years working on the client side, leading internal design teams for regional and national building formats. Day to day, he works with multiple grocery account teams to create and implement design solutions that achieve client goals, as well as consider what customers want and store employees need. Email him.