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U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (PA) and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) introduced legislation today to create a national initiative that would provide an economically sustainable solution to the problem of limited access to healthy foods in underserved communities. These communities are known as “food deserts.”
The legislation encourages supermarkets and other fresh food retailers to open new stores or expand their fresh food offerings in low-income rural, suburban and urban areas through a market-based approach of loans and grants. In doing so, the bipartisan Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) could lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of Americans living in “food deserts” by providing healthier food options, as well as stimulating local economic development.
“America has a growing obesity epidemic, especially with our children. Providing healthy food options in underserved rural, urban and suburban areas improves the health of our families and reduces health disparities,” Schwartz said. “As we work to rebuild our economy, this public-private partnership will create steady jobs at decent wages and will strengthen and revitalize our neighborhoods.”
“Obesity and diabetes rates are reaching crisis proportions in our country and it is time to take aggressive action,” said Senator Gillibrand, who, as the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, is helping lead the fight in the Senate to combat child obesity and promote good health. “Millions of New Yorkers do not have access to fresh, healthy food. By building new grocery stores in underserved areas across the state we can give people the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives, save billions in health care costs, and create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs.”
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative would attract investment in underserved communities by providing flexible grant and loan financing. High start-up costs or limited access to credit often prevent local grocery operators from opening new outlets in these communities, even though many grocery stores that have recently opened in “food deserts” have proven very successful. The HFFI will help grocery operators meet the demand in these communities while also providing healthy food options to its residents.
The initiative’s public-private partnership would also provide a market-based approach to address the obesity crisis in these communities, where nearly 1 in 6 children are overweight or obese. More than 25 million Americans have little or no access to a nearby store selling fresh foods. Research has shown that lack of access to fresh foods is a major factor in obesity. The loans and grants from the Healthy Food Financing Initiative would help supermarkets and other fresh food retailers open new stores or expand their fresh food offerings in low-income rural, suburban and urban areas.
The initiative is modeled after the highly successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which turned $30 million of state seed money into $190 million of additional investment since it began in 2004 – creating or retaining over 5,000 jobs and opening more than 85 new or improved fresh food stores throughout the state.
President Obama proposed $345 million to fund the initiative in FY 2011 budget. Congressional appropriators have been receptive to that funding request thus far. The bill introduced today would authorize USDA to administer a mix of loans and grants to provide one-time start-up assistance for supermarkets, corner stores, co-ops, and farmers’ markets. In the Pennsylvania effort, projects were completed in as little as four months from the time funding became available.
“Every family should be able to access nutritious, healthy food near their homes,” said Judith Bell, President of PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy organization. “The bills introduced today could help millions of Americans eat healthier and, in turn, live longer. Too many low-income people live far from a fresh food store – either in cities or suburbs that have lost supermarkets or in rural areas that never had them to begin with. This idea is ripe – it's time to harvest it.”
“Because of the childhood obesity crisis, this could be the first generation of American children with a shorter lifespan than their parents,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We have the opportunity to reverse this trend. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will bring affordable, nutritious food to communities where parents struggle to find healthy food for their children. Healthier food choices mean healthier families and healthier communities.”