ADVOCACY GROUP SEEKS SUPPORT FOR FOOD ZONES

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy here is seeking congressional support to develop legislation for "food empowerment zones," low-income urban areas where supermarket operators would receive incentives to open stores.The zones, modeled after the existing Enterprise Zone program, would provide grants, tax advantages, lease guarantees and low-interest loans

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy here is seeking congressional support to develop legislation for "food empowerment zones," low-income urban areas where supermarket operators would receive incentives to open stores.

The zones, modeled after the existing Enterprise Zone program, would provide grants, tax advantages, lease guarantees and low-interest loans to encourage development of shopping centers anchored by supermarkets.

As of late last month, Public Voice had not secured a congressional sponsor for the proposal but had drawn interest from some lawmakers, a spokesman told SN. "We do not have a sponsor yet. We have a couple of leads, but we're not in a position to say who they are," he said.

Public Voice has called on the federal government to set aside $1 billion for the plan, which would allow for the creation of zones in "several dozen cities" nationwide, according to Zy Weinberg, director of Public Voice's Inner City Food Access Program. He authored "No Place to Shop," a report released in March that called for food empowerment zones and recommended other ways to improve inner-city consumers' access to supermarkets, including the following:

· Pending legislation to provide federal tax breaks to companies undertaking commercial development in urban areas be rewritten to target food merchants.

· The federal Community Development Block Grant program be strengthened to fund more supermarkets and improved federal jobs training programs targeting supermarket workers.

· State and local governments increase tax incentives and simplify zoning laws to aid in supermarket development.

· Payments from public-assistance programs like food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program be staggered throughout the month to avoid staffing and inventory-flow problems at supermarkets.

Public Voice's proposals would provide needed incentives to supermarket operators who want to do business in urban areas, according to Stan Sorkin, vice president of public affairs at Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J.

Pathmark, which in the past has worked with local leaders and officials to open supermarkets on inner-city sites, was one of several companies that previewed the Public Voice report and provided comments, Sorkin said. The only idea in the report that originated from the supermarket industry, he noted, were suggestions that local government provide more tax incentives and ease zoning regulations.

Although Pathmark has not committed to partnering with Public Voice to lobby for the report's proposals, Sorkin said, "There's always potential for groups concerned with satisfying the consumer to lobby together."

Peter Castellana Jr., president of Western Beef, a Ridgewood, N.Y.-based chain that operates stores in low-income areas of metro New York, said the food empowerment zone "is a great idea, but I think they should offer [the benefits] first to those already in the area, not those who come in after the fact." Government initiatives tend to bypass companies already operating in urban neighborhoods in favor of large chains that have withdrawn from those locales, he explained.

Castellana also agreed with Public Voice's proposals for tax breaks and other incentives. "We've been operating in low-income areas for 10 or 15 years, and we haven't received much in assistance," he said. "There could be tremendous growth in these areas for a company like ourselves if they created some more incentives."

However, one supermarket executive said Congress likely would shoot down any bill calling for food empowerment zones. "It has no chance in heck of passing because it's a Republican-dominated Congress, and they're going in the opposite direction" by cutting support for the poor, he said. "They're sticking to party lines, and there's no progress whatsoever."

Edie Clark, director of media relations at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, said many of the Public Voice suggestions dovetail with recommendations made by FMI's urban initiatives task force. They include staggering benefit payments, eliminating government barriers to business and bolstering training programs. FMI does not have a position on the Food Empowerment Zone proposal or where its funding should come from, Clark said.

Public Voice's Weinberg said he would like to see funding for the zones shifted from federal farm subsidies, which are being phased out. Another possible source of funds is the up to $25 billion likely to be cut from the food stamp program over the next five years. "A reduction of the magnitude proposed [for food stamps] will have significant repercussions for the retail food industry," he said. According to his report, public assistance accounts for half the funds spent at supermarkets in some inner-city neighborhoods.