Replenishing Our Food Deserts: In Tightly Packed Urban Neighborhoods and Isolated Rural Areas, Fresh and Healthy Food Is Unavailable to Many Americans. Lawmakers Hope to Remedy That

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Whether you live in an urban or rural community, access to fresh produce and meat is a basic need," says Pennsylvania Representative Dwight Evans in sizing up an issue that is finding its way on to the agendas of America's state legislatures.

As traditional food stores have disappeared over the last 40 years, millions of Americans find themselves living in so-called "food deserts"--places that, compared to more prosperous communities, are underserved by affordable, high quality retail food outlets. And like a host of problems that affect a community's economic well-being and the health of its residents, legislatures have begun searching for the most appropriate policy remedies.

Although the problem may be universal, the solutions are not. "People who live in areas where not everyone owns a car or must travel long distances to reach a good food store, are keenly aware of the need for accessible and affordable food markets," Evans says. But trying to "re-store" poor urban neighborhoods or sparsely populated rural counties requires significantly different approaches.

Private advocacy organizations have joined forces with businesses and lawmakers to find creative solutions.

Solutions often begin with those closest to the problems. That was the case in Philadelphia where the nonprofit organization, The Food Trust, conducted a study in 2002 that found that the city's low-income neighborhoods needed at least 70 more supermarkets. Being so dramatically underserved had two major consequences. The first was that diet-related illnesses were significantly higher in low-income communities. This was due in part to the residents' difficulty in traveling to affordable stores that stocked quality fruits and vegetables. The second impact was economic. Lower income residents' food purchasing dollars were "traveling" or "leaking" to other areas rather than staying in neighborhoods that desperately needed the economic activity.

"At first, the Food Trust was more interested in the health issues," says the organization's communication director, David Adler. "But we began to see the lack of supermarkets as an economic development issue that expanded our idea of what constituted a healthy community."

Indeed, evidence from community redevelopment efforts over the last 10 years does suggest that supermarkets help communities that have been hurt by the loss of businesses, a high concentration of poor households, and a decline in public services. Supermarkets create jobs and bring foot traffic and lighting to previously dormant commercial areas, making them safer. Often they anchor downtown revitalization efforts.

A study by The Reinvestment Fund, a development finance corporation playing a major management role in Pennsylvania's supermarket restoration efforts, found that every $1 spent on supermarket construction and operation generates $1.50 in additional economic activity. Supermarkets also give an immediate boost to property values of between 4 percent and 7 percent.

When the Food Trust first brought its report to the attention of Philadelphia city government, it caught the eye of Representative Evans. As co-chair of the Governor's Task Force on Working Families, he broached the idea of a publicly supported supermarket financing initiative. The Pennsylvania legislature created the Fresh Food Financing Initiative in 2004.

"The initiative is an innovative and creative use of public and private funding that is a sterling example of sound public policy," Evans says. "It is a partnership that is supported by The Reinvestment Fund, The Food Trust and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition." At this stage, the state has committed $30 million that The Reinvestment Fund is using to leverage other public and private funds to make loans for supermarket development across the state of Pennsylvania.

The early results have been impressive: The Fresh Food Financing Initiative has committed resources to 28 projects that so far have produced more than a million square feet of retail food space and 2,500 new jobs. …