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Food Deserts Boast Big Supporters, Funding Fizzles

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

When was the last time a big city mayor rode into office making “food deserts” one of his campaign issues?

That's just what new Chicago Mayor (and former White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel did. And he has wasted no time following through – hosting a Food Desert Summit within a month of taking office.

The mayor met with executives of grocery chains this month (June 15) to discuss how they could address the city’s food deserts – large, mostly low-income areas that lack access to fresh foods.

According to Chicago's ABC 7 News, Mayor Emanuel told the six CEOs that solving the food desert problem would improve their bottom lines, the public's health and grow the city's economy.

“I would call that win, win, win,” Emanuel conveyed with a grin.

The Chicago mayor is following the lead of First Lady Michele Obama, who started talking about the perils of food deserts last February, as part of her "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity.

Emanuel echoes Obama's point: when you begin to stock a food desert, you address more than just the lack of healthy food. You address contentious issues like food justice and health disparities.

A review of research on food deserts compiled by PolicyLink and The Food Trust, two non-profits working to increase access to healthy foods, found that “stores in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color are less likely to stock healthy foods… compared to stores in higher-income or predominantly white communities.” To boot, these same stores often sell lower quality items at higher prices. The report revealed that in some cities as many as 80 percent of low-income residents can’t find places to buy healthy staples such as low-fat milk, high-fiber bread or fresh produce.

Unsurprisingly, these food deserts often have correspondingly high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related diseases.

For those not moved by the plight of the underserved, consider the increased housing prices or tax revenue generated by such ventures. One assessment found that the value of homes close to new supermarkets in Philadelphia increased by 4-to-7 percent after the stores opened.

If that’s still not enough to grab your attention, what about the four-letter word of the moment – jobs? Another study in Philadelphia found that a new supermarket brought in a total of 660 jobs to the surrounding area, directly and indirectly.

The cornerstone of the efforts to address food deserts nationally is the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a public-private partnership modeled after the highly successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. According to PolicyLink and partners The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund, the initiative has helped establish 88 fresh food stores by leveraging $30 million of Pennsylvania state seed money into $190 million of additional investment and creating more than 5,000 jobs in the process.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative provides “a mix of loans and grants to provide one?time startup assistance for supermarkets, corner stores, co?ops, farmers’ markets” and other ventures that bring fresh food and produce to food deserts. The initiative boasts of a variety of collateral benefits such as creating quality jobs, developing new markets for farmers, bolstering development in distressed communities and bringing tax revenue to the local economy.

This is an issue that everyone can get behind. Rep. Michael C. Burgess, (R-Texas) cosponsored a bill for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative proposing $500 million in funding.  “This legislation will stimulate the economy,” Burgess said, “by bringing jobs to some of the hardest hit areas while also providing and encouraging healthy eating – choices which will combat disease and increase the quality of life.” In his fiscal year 2012 budget, President Obama proposed $330 million to fund the initiative, including $35 million in the Agriculture Department budget.

During tough budget negotiations this month (June, 2011), the Administration followed up, expressing concern over funding cuts proposed by the House Agriculture Appropriations bill, specifically stating “the bill does not support the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.”

So it was disappointing to see an initiative that was launched with so much promise and support voted down in the House a couple of days later, the day after the former White House chief of staff hosted his successful and well-received Chicago summit on food deserts.

Despite these setbacks, multiple committees in the House and Senate will be discussing whether to appropriate funds to support a national HFFI in the coming months.  Support for such initiatives continues to build locally with successful and innovative projects from mobile markets to virtual supermarkets popping up across the country. While these local efforts are inspiring and important stopgaps, national leaders and Congress need to move this effort forward. We need to make sure they know that these local efforts deserve national support – especially during the contentious budget debates ahead.

The next time you enjoy a delicious piece of fresh summer fruit, take a moment to think of the folks across town. How easily can they choose fresh fruit over a fruit-flavored soft drink? Then write your representative (and sign up here to stay updated) to tell him or her you want to see full funding for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, so it can start to get to work in your community.

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