WASHINGTON — A bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced bills that will invest $500 million to reduce the number of low-income Americans living in so-called “food deserts” — areas without adequate access to supermarkets selling fresh foods.
Under the heading of the Healthy Foods Financing Initiative, the bills would leverage private investment through federal loans and grants to create or expand fresh food outlets in underserved communities. The initiative’s public-private partnership would also provide a market-based approach to address the obesity crisis in these communities.
The Senate lead sponsor is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., with co-sponsors Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tom Carper, D-Del., Bob Casey, D-Pa., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The House lead sponsor is Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., with co-sponsors Michael Burgess, R-Texas, Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill.
“Obesity and diabetes rates are reaching crisis proportions in our country and it is time to take aggressive action,” said Gillibrand. “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.”
“Americans living in some communities face substantive challenges accessing fresh foods and lack the opportunity to make healthy food choices for themselves and their family,” said Burgess. “This legislation will stimulate the economy 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. The coupling of these two initiatives will benefit families, communities and the country as a whole."
The initiative is modeled after the 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 88 new or improved fresh food stores throughout the state.
President Obama proposed $345 million to fund the initiative in the fiscal year 2011 budget. Congressional appropriators have been receptive to that funding request thus far. The bill introduced Tuesday would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.
“Independent grocers are uniquely positioned to help eradicate food deserts, in part because of their ability to adjust individual projects to the needs of the local community, as well as their strong commitment to the communities which they serve,” said Peter J. Larkin, president and chief executive officer of the National Grocers Association. “The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is an important piece of legislation that will go a long way towards eliminating food deserts while adding quality jobs and tax revenue directly to those local communities. NGA and our members look forward to working with Congress to quickly pass this important legislation, and to continuing efforts to eliminate food deserts across the country.”