Minnesota-based Supervalu targets food deserts

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When First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve access to healthy food took a step forward today, Supervalu was there.

Supervalu, based in Eden Prairie, was one of several retailers that announced plans to open or expand in areas without easy access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods. Those areas are sometimes called food deserts — and the White House says more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in them.

“Make no mistake on it. This is a big deal. It is a really big deal,” Obama said at the announcement today.

Supervalu plans to build 250 Save-A-Lot stores across the country over the next five years.

The company has not disclosed where the Save-A-Lot stores will be located, except to say none of the stores will be in Minnesota.

Save-A-Lot stores are a high-return business, said Supervalu CEO Craig Herkert. They’re about one-third the size of a typical grocery store and carry a smaller assortment of products, many of which are a Supervalu brand. That allows the stores to keep prices low, about 40 percent lower than at a typical grocery store, said Herkert.

“These are not second-hand, second-class, hand-me-down products. These are first-class products that any of us would be happy to bring home to our families,” said Herkert.

Recently, an article in The Economist raised some questions about whether building grocery stores is really the answer — or whether it takes more than a new grocery store to get Americans to eat healthy food.

Access is only part of the issue, Herkert acknowledged today.

“Clearly access alone doesn’t solve the problem,” said Herkert, referring to similar comments from Michelle Obama. “But you have to have access to start solving the problem. And I’m proud of the fact that we can start.”