Virginia creates fund to eliminate 'food deserts' in the state
- A group of bi-partisan public officials urged Virginia’s General Assembly to create a Grocery Investment Fund last week, with the goal of bringing supermarkets to underserved communities, according to U.S. News & World Reports.
- Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed 2018-2020 budget includes $7.5 million to establish this grocery fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development.
- If the fund were created, it would combine state funding along with private money to offer one-time, low-interest loans or small grants to grocery stores to open or renovate markets in these so-called food deserts.
The goal of the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund would be to financially motivate supermarkets to open up or renovate stores in the state's underserved communities. It’s a tough sell for retailers, though. If a grocery store could operate successfully in a given location, one would likely already be there.
Virginia joins a list of states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have similar programs. In 2016, the Healthy Food For Ohio initiative was launched to help retailers open new stores or update existing ones in the state’s food deserts. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, helped fund more than 150 grocery stores in underserved areas through its Fresh Food Financing Initiative.
Food deserts are a very real problem for Virginians. More than 1.7 million residents, including 480,000 children live in areas with limited supermarket access. Across the U.S., roughly 23.5 million people live in food deserts. This, in turn, means these communities have a hard time buying healthier food, like fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meat.
This is a nationwide problem. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 30 million Americans live in communities without easy access to healthy food.
Organizations, sometimes in partnership with retailers, have launched innovative programs to address the problem, including mobile grocery stores and ride-sharing programs. But funding these projects is a challenge, and they oftentimes don't operate at the scale needed to make a sizable impact.
Even if a grocery store opens in an underserved neighborhood, it can struggle to connect with shoppers and improve health outcomes. A study from 2014 tracked fruit and vegetable consumption in a Philadelphia community after a supermarket was built as part of a statewide initiative. Researchers found while residents’ agreed they had better access to fresh foods, there wasn’t an increase in consumption of these items.
Experts point out that grocers and nonprofits need to effectively market their fresh offerings to shoppers. People also need access to affordable, effective transportation. A ride-sharing program at two Meijer stores in Detroit, for instance, could have a significant impact if offered on a larger scale and promoted within communities that need it.