Healthy Food Financing Initiative promises to boost health, wellness of Americans

PHILADELPHIA The Obama administration plans to bolster health and wellness in America’s inner cities through supermarkets, according to details of a more than $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative that were released Friday. Obama’s promise: eliminate “food deserts” from the nation’s more impoverished communities within seven years.

“The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will promote a range of interventions that expand access to nutritious foods, including developing and equipping grocery stores and other small businesses and retailers selling healthy food in communities that currently lack these options,” the announcement read.

Residents of these communities, which are sometimes called “food deserts” and are often found in economically distressed areas, are typically served by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer little or no fresh produce.

Lack of healthy, affordable food options can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

With the first year of funding, the administration’s initiative will leverage enough investments to begin expanding healthy foods options into as many as one-fifth of the nation’s food deserts and create thousands of jobs in urban and rural communities across the nation.

“Our effort to improve access to healthy and affordable food is a critically important step toward First Lady Michelle Obama’s goal to solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation,” stated Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“It’s been a tough year for America, but for our middle class and distressed communities it’s been a tough decade,” added Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. “We’re here to make sure that in America, where a child grows up doesn’t determine whether they have access to a better — healthier — future. By introducing powerful incentives for private investors to take a chance on projects — like a new, healthier grocery store — we can make that difference for America’s children, while creating new jobs and services in their communities.”

To help community leaders identify the food deserts in their area, USDA recently launched a Food Environment Atlas (www.ers.usda.gov/FoodAtlas/). This online tool allows for the identification of counties where, for example, more than 40% of the residents have low incomes and live more than one mile from a grocery store. Nationwide, USDA estimates that 23.5 million people, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. Of the 23.5 million, 11.5 million are low-income individuals in households with incomes at or below 200% of the poverty line. Of the 2.3 million people living in low-income rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket, 1.1 million are low-income.

The initiative is a partnership between the Departments of Treasury, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services.

The Treasury Department will support private sector financing of healthy foods options in distressed urban and rural communities through the New Markets Tax Credit and financial assistance to Treasury-certified community development financial institutions.Treasury’s CDFI Fund has a long history of supporting these kinds of investments, according to the release, including: providing funding for the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative that has brought 68 grocery stores to underserved communities; the Roberts Fresh Market, a full-service supermarket in an underserved area of New Orleans; and a new Super Giant in Washington, D.C., the only grocery store in the Anacostia neighborhood and now one of Giant’s most successful stores.

The Department of Agriculture will continue its focus on improving access to healthy foods through nutrition assistance programs, creating business opportunities for America’s farmers, and promoting economic development in rural areas.

And the Department of Health and Human Services will dedicate up to $20 million in Community Economic Development program funds to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Through the CED program, HHS will award competitive grants to Community Development Corporations to support projects that finance grocery stores, farmers markets, and other sources of fresh nutritious food. HHS has supported fresh food projects in the past, such as the Plaza del Valle in Panorama City, Calif.