The Campus Food Desert

A story I wrote for Carolina Eats.

Photography by Alex Dixon.



Solving the riddle of healthy-food accessibility is a difficult task—one that is deeply layered and complicated. A group of students at UNC-Chapel Hill believe they’ve found the answer to healthy-food inaccessibility on campus, which they call an urban food desert. They are developing The Sonder Market, a student-run cooperative grocery, but are they targeting the right market?

When Marisa Scavo, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore from Cary, thought about opening a grocery store, she wasn’t picturing brick-and-mortar. Instead, she envisioned a hybrid community, educational and nutritional space.

What she and co-founder Nikki Barczak, a junior from Beverly Hills, Mich., developed was the idea for a cooperative grocery store on the UNC-CH campus, The Sonder Market.

“Yeah, we’re providing produce. We’re also creating educational space. But we’re also changing the entire perception around food,” Scavo said.

Mostly, The Sonder Market team, which has grown to more than 15 members, wants to provide fresh, healthy and affordable foods to the UNC-CH campus, which they say is an urban food desert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines an urban food desert as an area that is both low-income and low-access. Low-income is defined as a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater. Low access is defined as more than 1 mile from a grocery store.

The UNC-CH campus is 1.2 miles from a Harris Teeter, 3 miles from a Trader Joe’s and .9 miles from Weaver Street Market, a cooperative grocery.

The USDA defines the tract containing the UNC-CH campus as low-income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chapel Hill has a 22.7 percent poverty rate. Students living on campus are not included in poverty-rate calculations.

Food desert definitions are hotly contested and multilayered. Can a campus seemingly full of foodfrom convenience stores to restaurants to dining halls—really be a food desert?

The Idea

Scavo was the primary contact for the UNC-CH student group Fair Local Organic when she got an email from Yahya Alazrak, regional organizer for CoFED, a national organization that helps students start food cooperatives.

After Alazrak came to meet with FLO members, the idea of starting a cooperative lost some steam. But Scavo didn’t forget.

“I made the decision—you know what, I’m going to make this idea happen,” Scavo said.

Barczak joined in, and the two began developing The Sonder Market, a student-run cooperative grocery on the UNC-CH campus stocked with local produce and value-added goods made by the cooperative members.

Cooperatives are member owned and sustained, meaning that members share both the benefits and costs of the business.

Members would pay a one-time fee to The Sonder Market and receive a discount on purchases, as well as an equal voice in the mission and operations of the grocery. Members could then volunteer to work in the store.

Scavo and Barczak believe that the market could educate a new crop of agricultural workers, provide leadership and business experience to students and connect the UNC-CH campus with local farmers.

So far, they have joined The Cookery in Durham, a culinary business incubator and raised $2,185 through an Indiegogo campaign. They are planning to start in the fall with an on-campus mobile produce cart to gauge demand.

By spring semester, they hope to move into an on-campus location, selling produce and goods like dried fruit and baked goods made at their Cookery location.

image (members of The Sonder Market meet at TRU Deli) 

Complicated Definitions: the Modern Food Desert

The definition of a food desert has evolved over time and there are still conflicting views. Often, food deserts are defined based on the perspective of the researcher, said Maureen Berner, an UNC-CH professor of public administration and government who researches food insecurity.

Berner said she thought the UNC-CH campus was a food desert.

“Overall the options for eating around the UNC campus are prepared foods, which tend to be more expensive,” Berner said. “But there are important exceptions. Dining services have tried to make available local and healthy food options.”

Food deserts are linked to bad health outcomes such as obesity, increased diabetes and general poor health. Yet providing access to healthy and affordable food might not solve the problem, Berner said.

“The food desert issue needs to be taken to the next step,” Berner said. “You can plop down a grocery store in the middle of a food desert, but that doesn’t mean people will eat better, even if it’s affordable.”

Berner said education is crucial, and providing access is meaningless unless there is a change in personal behavior.

Barczak said The Sonder Market will provide education on healthy and local eating through community workshops and highlighting information about the products and farmers in the store.

Alice Ammerman, director for the UNC-CH Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, researches the intersection between healthy food access and sustainable food systems.

“People are kind of moving away from the notion of a food desert because it’s kind of vague,” she said.

Many of the organizations working on food access have abandoned the term “food desert,” said Richard Pirog, co-convener for the Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network, which works to build the capacity of food hubs and supply healthy food to underserved markets.

When Ammerman was asked whether she thought the UNC-CH campus was a food desert, she said there was, “certainly a lot of access to food on campus.”

The USDA only defines low-income areas as food deserts. But students can skew low-income designations, Ammerman said.

“It is true that a food desert definition is not always easy and is confounded by things like the fact that students tend to have low-incomes,” she said. “It may be true that students don’t have a lot of money in their pockets, but their wealth comes from their families.”


The Sonder Market will stay a student organization and will not seek a profit, Barczak said.

“We’re not here to make money,” Scavo said. “We just want to create something on this campus that is going to change the atmosphere of food.”

They are hoping to partner with the university to provide work-study positions and supplement with volunteer workers.

EB Hobbs, a junior from Raleigh, and farmer liaison for The Sonder Market, said the market has partnered with Farmer Food Share’s POP Market, a North Carolina non-profit that links farmers with non-profits serving low-income markets. The Sonder Market will sell goods at-cost.

While Hobbs has not fully researched the expected prices of The Sonder Market compared to other nearby grocery stores, he said some of the market’s produce will be more expensive compared to Harris Teeter, but others will be cheaper. For example, The Sonder Market will sell apples for less than $1 per pound, while Harris Teeter sells apples for $2.99 per pound, Hobbs said.

Keeping food affordable is priority and they are planning to do pricing research soon, Barczak and Scavo said.

“Although we haven’t done the research for it we’ve had an internal survey going around and pretty much everyone agrees that Harris Teeter prices and Whole Foods prices are just not really compatible with most college budgets,” Barczak said.

Ammerman said purchasing low-cost local produce in Chapel Hill would be difficult, since there is a large demand for local produce and farmers can get high returns at nearby farmers’ markets.

“It’s also always a challenge to balance supporting local farmers and getting a low price point for food,” she said. “In some ways they’re almost contradictory.”

Sonder Market co-founder Barczak said campus dining is not affordable to some students. She said while the dining hall is trying to provide more local and healthy food, they have other priorities as well.

“They are a dining hall; they have to try to serve food that appeals to 22,000 students,” Scavo said.

UNC-CH meal plans run from an average of $5.24 per meal for an unlimited plan up to $10.48 per meal for a block plan. According to the UNC-CH admissions, about 47 percent of students receive some form of financial aid.

The Sonder Market said they hope to partner with UNC-CH to allow students to buy their goods with Flex money or cover purchases with scholarships, but have not discussed it with administration.

Groceries are notoriously low-margin businesses; supermarkets have an average profit margin of 1 to 2 percent, while specialty markets have an average margin of 3.5 to 6 percent. It would be very difficult to keep prices lower than campus dining while buying in lower volumes, Ammerman said.

“Unless (farmers) are extremely altruistic they’re not going to sell to an organization that wants to keep their prices low,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to convince farmers that students at a university are actually poor.”

Ammerman said she thought more targeted, university-supported programs were better suited to help students who struggle with poverty.

There are other programs for low-income workers and students. Carolina Cupboard, a campus food pantry that would supply free food to students under the poverty line, is in development to open in the fall.

Carolina Campus Community Garden also provides low-income UNC-CH workers vegetables and fruits at no cost.

Still, Ammerman said there were ways to provide low-cost local options, including sliding-scale pricing, where prices match ability to pay.

Some of the food hubs in the Michigan Food Hub Learning and Innovation Network use a similar differentiated pricing strategy, Pirog said. Hubs will seek higher margins in higher income markets in order to subsidize lower income markets.

Target Markets

In combatting food insecurity and food deserts, Berner said it was important to match marketing materials to the needs of the target group.

If a group wants to help a low-income community, they must engage with community members and find the best way to meet the needs conveniently and affordably, Berner said.

Other student cooperatives have across the country target different markets.

The Berkeley Student Food Collective near the University of California, Berkeley campus mostly targets students who care about local and organic options, said Matthew Kirschenbaum, the collective’s communications coordinator.

The Down to Earth Food Co-Op at the University of Delaware serves “students already indoctrinated into the local, organic club,” said co-founder Elana Berk.

Sonder Market cofounders Scavo and Barczak said they want to take healthy, local food from “elitist to accessible.”

“We don’t want to be targeted to the stereotypical local food-eater,” Scavo said.

Their target market has three segments: students, faculty members and UNC-CH workers, such as grounds workers and dining hall workers.

The three segments cover a wide range of incomes. According to the News and Observer database, an UNC-CH grounds worker makes around $28,000 a year, while professors can make more than $100,000.

Ammerman said understanding the needs of the target market is crucial, and business models should be highly dependent on the customers.  Storing, transporting and cooking food would vary for the different segments, she said.

The Sonder Market would target students first and UNC-CH workers last. So far, Barczak and Scavo have surveyed students, but have not talked to UNC-CH workers. They said their promotional materials are aimed at students.

“Students will be the easiest to reach,” Scavo said. “We will consider ourselves successful if we hit our first two targets, but I will consider us as successful when we hit that third target (UNC workers).”

“It’s more than just buying food with us. We want to integrate community,” Barczak said.

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