Currently, the USDA estimates that 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children live in “food deserts,” or economically distressed areas that are typically served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores offering little or no fresh produce.
“Food deserts,” which can now be identified using USDA’s new Food Environment Atlas, are one of the many results of the nation’s broken food system preventing individuals from making better choices and denying them the ability to vote with their forks. When an area lacks healthy, affordable food options, its inhabitants are prone to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
In order to achieve the Obama Administration’s goal of eliminating “food deserts” nationwide in the next seven years, the HFFI will fund a movement of bringing grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America. The effort will also include providing grocery stores on wheels for less densely populated areas, said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan during her “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” presentation at The New School Feb. 25.
The $400 million initiative, which will use a mix of federal tax credits, below-market rate loans, loan guarantees, and grants aimed to attract private sector capital, is being made possible through a partnership between the departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
Modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), the HFFI will ideally not only provide access to healthy food, but will also invest in communities by removing financing obstacles and operating barriers, as well as by creating living wage jobs and qualified work forces.
The Food Trust can perhaps be credited for inspiring the new national initiative. The Philadelphia-based nutrition education nonprofit, in conjunction with The Reinvestment Fund and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, set out a decade ago to increase the number of food stores in underserved areas across the state through the FFFI. The effort was launched after a national study determined Philadelphia had the second lowest number of markets per capita out of all major cities in the country. Food Trust’s Web site states FFFI has helped finance 83 supermarket projects in 27 Pennsylvania counties since December 2009. The projects are expected to create or retain 5,000 jobs and more than 1.6 million square feet of food retail.
First Lady Michelle Obama praised the city and state in her remarks to the Fairhill crowd. “What you’ve clearly demonstrated here,” she said, “is that we can do what’s good for our businesses and our economy while doing what’s good for our kids and our families and our neighborhoods at the same time. We can do it all.