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"Bringing Healthy Food to Underserved Areas"

March/April 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

What follows are excerpts from two recent PolicyLink reports, “Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Promising Strategies to Improve Access to Healthy Food and Transform Communities,” by Rebecca Flournoy and “A Healthy Food Financing Initiative.” Full versions of the reports are available at

Community environments affect people’s eating and exercise habits. Scientists and medical professionals agree that lack of easy access to healthy food and safe outdoor areas for physical activity are key contributors to obesity. The obesity epidemic, along with related health problems like diabetes and heart disease, is most severe for low-income people of color. Nearly a fifth of all African-American children and nearly a quarter of Mexican-American children are obese, compared to one in ten white children. Children from low-income families are twice as likely to be overweight as those from higher-income families. Researchers estimate that for the first time in American history, today’s generation of children will live shorter lives than their parents, due to the health consequences of obesity and being overweight.

Studies have shown that better access to healthy food corresponds to healthier eating and lower rates of obesity and diabetes. For example, one study examining several U.S. states found that African Americans living in a census tract with a supermarket are more likely to meet federal guidelines for fruits and vegetable consumption, and for each additional supermarket, produce consumption increased by 32%. In rural Mississippi, adults living in counties without supermarkets were 23% less likely to meet guidelines for daily fruit and vegetable consumption than adults living in counties with supermarkets. Studies have concluded that New Yorkers and Californians living in areas with more fresh food retailers, along with fewer convenience stores and fast food restaurants, have lower rates of obesity. Researchers in Indianapolis found that adding a new grocery store to a neighborhood translated into an average weight loss of three pounds for adults in that community.

Improving access to healthy food also brings economic benefits. A large full-service supermarket creates between 100 and 200 full- and part-time jobs, and there is some emerging evidence that a grocery store can increase local tax revenues and stabilize or even increase local home values. A study found that tripling the amount of fresh produce that farmers sell directly to consumers at farmers’ markets in Michigan could generate as many as 1,889 new jobs and $187 million in additional personal income.

Across the country, innovative programs and policy efforts are helping to open grocery stores and supermarkets, re-stock convenience stores with healthier foods, and link small farmers and their fresh produce directly to consumers. Policymakers can support and promote innovations emerging at the grassroots and help expand and scale up innovative programs through public policy. Improving food access for everyone demands multiple approaches to meet the different needs of diverse communities.

The Pennsylvania Model

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative—a public-private partnership created in 2004—provides a model solution. In four years, it helped develop 83 supermarkets and fresh food outlets in underserved rural and urban areas throughout the state, creating or retaining 5,000 jobs in those communities. Making this happen required just $30 million in state seed money. The state funds have already resulted in projects totaling $190 million. The program continues to dramatically improve access to healthy food statewide, while also driving meaningful, long-term economic development.

A Federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative

The federal government should use this proven state program as the model for a national initiative to improve children’s health, create jobs and spur economic development nationwide.

Like the Pennsylvania effort, a Healthy Food Financing Initiative would attract investment in underserved communities by providing critical one-time loan and grant financing. These one-time resources will help fresh food retailers overcome the higher initial barriers to entry into underserved, low-income urban, suburban and rural communities, and would also support renovation and expansion of existing stores so they can provide the healthy foods communities want and need. The program would be flexible and comprehensive enough to support innovations in healthy food retailing and to assist retailers with different aspects of the store development and renovation process.

In the midst of the country’s current economic downturn, the need for a comprehensive federal policy to address the lack of fresh food access in low-income communities and communities of color is critical. With constricting credit markets, grocery store operators face higher obstacles to developing stores in underserved communities. Obesity and related health problems are expected to worsen during these hard economic times. Evidence strongly shows, however, that when people have access to healthier foods, they make healthier choices—and that securing new or improved local grocery stores can also improve local economies and create jobs.

President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget called for over $400 million in investment in HFFI. In addition to the President’s proposed budget, the First Lady spotlighted the Healthy Food Financing Initiative as part of the launch of her Let’s Move campaign, targeted at preventing childhood obesity. Alongside the tremendous support from the White House, sponsors in both the Senate and the House will introduce legislation creating a Healthy Food Financing Initiative in the coming weeks.

For more information, please contact Rebecca Flournoy at or call 510/663-2333.

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