The recent passage of the federal Farm Bill reauthorization has re-focused the nation’s attention on nutrition issues, especially those that plague disadvantaged communities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 23.5 million Americans lack access to affordable, fresh, and healthy food and live in areas known as “food deserts.” Food deserts can be found in both urban and rural communities, but they can disproportionately affect African Americans and other communities of color. Limited access to fresh and nutritious food can lead to a host of health problems, including obesity, malnutrition, poor child development, weakened immune systems, chronic disease, or even premature death.
Black state lawmakers are leading the charge to alleviate food deserts and bring healthy food options to our communities. Members of NBCSL have successfully passed an array of laws to a) improve food affordability, b) increase access to fresh foods, c) encourage grocers to do and expand businesses in underserved communities, and d) assist farmers markets in serving more Americans.
PennsylvaniaFresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI); Implemented in 2004
NBCSL sponsor: Rep. Dwight Evans (primary)
Summary: The FFFI program provided financial incentives to attract grocers to food deserts across the state. FFFI leveraged $30 million in state appropriations with an additional $146 million through public-private partnerships. FFFI assisted grocers and supermarket development in underserved communities through direct grants, loans, and tax credits. Funds could be used for projects such as pre-development, construction, renovation, employee training, and other pre-opening expenses. The success of FFFI led to the federal adoption of the program as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. This initiative is now administered by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Treasury.
Impact: Along with providing more fresh and affordable food options for Pennsylvania residents, FFFI projects are estimated to have created over 5,000 jobs and 1.66 million square feet of retail space to many underserved urban and rural communities throughout the state.
New JerseyFresh Mobiles Pilot Program (AB 3688/SB 2728); Enacted 2012
NBCSL sponsors & cosponsors: Assemblymembers Whip Wilson (primary) and Mila Jasey; Senator Shirley Turner.
Summary: This law established a mobile farmers’ market pilot program to increase access to fresh food for residents in the Garden State’s food deserts. The pilot targeted Camden, which had been identified by the USDA as one of the worst food deserts in the nation. The program utilizes local vendors and food producers and a small fleet of vans and refrigerated trailers to set up markets in the heart of food deserts. The program launched in Spring of 2013.
Impact: While New Jersey awaits reports on the impact of the program, Fresh Mobiles has increased utilization of several community gardens and farm producers in and around Camden.
WashingtonLocal Farms Healthy Kids Act (HB 2798/SB 6483) Enacted 2008
NBCSL sponsors & cosponsors: Representative Eric Pettigrew (primary); Senator Rosa Franklin (retired).
Summary: The Washington Local Farms Healthy Kids Act is a comprehensive nutrition program intended to improve access to fresh local food for food insecure individuals in the state. While much of the program focuses on school nutrition, two provisions addressed food deserts. The law provides assistance to vendors at farmers markets to accept nutritional benefits and credit cards. The law also expanded participation in the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and provided coupons for low-income families to shop at the markets.
Impact: Local Farms to Healthy Schools is an example of comprehensive nutrition legislation, by effectively linking nutrition solutions across community, education, and agricultural interests. Furthermore, programs under this law have made Washington state eligible for additional federal funding through agriculture and nutrition funding streams.
IllinoisFarmers’ Market Technology Improvement Program (FMTIP) (HB 4756); Enacted 2010
NBCSL sponsors & cosponsors: Representatives LaShawn Ford, Mary Flowers, Monique Davis, Karen Yarbrough (retired), Annazette Collins (retired), Eddie Washington (deceased), Arthur Turner, II, Al Riley, Ken Dunkin, William Burns, David Miller (retired), Deborah Graham (retired), Marlow Colvin (retired), and William Davis; Senators Toi Hutchinson (primary), Mattie Hunter, and Jacqueline Collins.
Summary: FMTIP established a fund to assist vendors at farmers’ markets and other non-traditional food markets to rent or purchase wireless point-of-sale technologies so they can accept nutrition benefits.
Impact: In the first year, nutritional benefit sales at farmers’ markets increased almost 400 percent. Due to the FMTIP, more than 60 Illinois farmers markets now accept electronic nutritional benefits.
Much work still needs to be done to eliminate food deserts in our communities. Black legislators in states such as Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, and Tennessee have already introduced bills this year to improve nutrition and increase food options. NBCSL stands ready to assist in the successful passage and implementation of this legislation. While it may not be a quick fix, together, lawmakers can make a difference providing an oasis to food deserts one bill at a time.