By Sean Slone, CSG Director, Transportation and Infrastructure Policy
Delores McQuinn knew her city of Richmond, Va., had challenges with access to healthy foods well before she was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2008.
“This little kid … would come to my house almost every other day to see if we had food for (him) and his siblings," she said. I realized … that there were some serious issues of people having access to food.”
McQuinn also recognized the area didn’t have supermarkets where residents could buy fresh produce and other healthy food items. The corner stores that were there weren’t necessarily selling food that was healthy or affordable.
“This particular district that I represent truly was a district that was in a food desert,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have few grocery stores or healthy, affordable food retail outlets.
When McQuinn got to the legislature, she heard from colleagues who represented more rural communities that they saw some of the same challenges in their districts. But, at least initially, she also found a lack of knowledge and understanding of the issue.
“I remember one of my colleagues asking me ‘what is a food dessert?’” she said. “People just didn’t know what food deserts were.”
So when McQuinn first introduced a resolution calling on the general assembly to create a task force to study the issue in 2012, it garnered little support. It wasn’t until the following year that the legislation was approved and the Food Desert Task Force was created, with the deans of the colleges of agriculture at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University serving as co-chairs.
The panel’s initial findings, issued in January 2014, showed that while Virginia is better off than some states in terms of food access, pockets of food deserts or inadequate access can be found in all cities and counties across the commonwealth.
Almost 18 percent of Virginia’s population lives in a food desert and 16.5 percent of Virginia’s children—about 300,000—are considered food insecure, meaning they can’t be sure from where their next meal will come.
The Food Desert Task Force offered several recommendations for consideration by the Virginia General Assembly. Among them:
Expanding grant opportunities to allow organizations to support urban and community gardens, mobile markets, community kitchens and food hubs;
Providing incentives for small businesses to develop local and healthy food enterprises in food desert areas; and
Providing funding for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a national program that helps communities gain access to healthy produce and nutrition education.
McQuinn’s cause has picked up some new champions along the way. Dorothy McAuliffe, the wife of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, has made eliminating childhood hunger and improving food access her primary focus as first lady. She and McQuinn are both featured in the documentary “Living in a Food Desert,” produced by Virginia State University and accessible on YouTube.
Second Generation of Food Desert States
It was just over a decade ago that lawmakers in Pennsylvania approved a statewide financing program called the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The initiative was designed to remove financing obstacles and lower operating barriers for supermarkets in poor communities, and reduce the high incidence of diet-related diseases by providing healthy food. The state provided $30 million in seed money for the program, which ended in 2010 after being used to fund 88 projects creating more than 5,000 jobs.
Similar programs have surfaced around the country, including in Illinois, where nationally known food access researcher and consultant Mari Gallagher authored the 2006 breakthrough study, “Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago,” which popularized the term “food desert.”
“Certainly the awareness war has been won,” she said. “There’s not a policy person in the U.S. who hasn’t heard the term food desert and doesn’t have some basic understanding of it.”
In 2012, with knowledge of Gallagher’s work and at the urging of Illinois state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, then-Gov. Pat Quinn announced the creation of the Illinois Fresh Food Fund, a loan and grant program to help grocers succeed in underserved areas. The program is administered by IFF, a nonprofit community development financial institution whose founder and president Trinita Logue explained how the fund came to focus on certain types of stores.
“(Big chain supermarkets) … didn’t need our money and they didn’t particularly want our money because it came with other strings attached,” Logue said. “We decided that we wanted to fund independent grocers in communities that no matter what was going on in politics, they would probably remain underserved.”
But IFF also wanted to ask more of the grocers who received funding.
“We wanted the grocers to buy into the healthy foods movement in the sense of … helping (to) educate shoppers,” Logue said. “Each grocer we selected had to have a community engagement plan and enter into an agreement with us. … What we tried to be true to was that basic idea that we’re part of a much bigger ecosystem that’s trying to go through a big change.”
The IFF has deployed all of its available funds to support grocery store projects in some of the state’s highest-need areas. Repaid principal on the loans will be used to continue to fund additional projects.
“The state funding of grocery store and corner store improvements has been with good intention and has done some good,” said Gallagher. “It hasn’t always been easy for these different state programs to actually roll the money out the door and I think that’s partly because some of these markets really need to be worked at the ground level (and) states are not always poised to do that.”
Gallagher said it has been encouraging to see more states turning to good data to help direct limited resources toward the food desert problem. She pointed to a website she helped put together with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which has a mapping tool designed to help government agencies and others identify gaps in services and improve access to healthy foods.
Gallagher warned that there is no quick fix and no one-size-fits-all approach for the food desert problem in every state, or even every neighborhood, and it will take an all-hands-on-deck approach to solve it.
“Food deserts are complicated,” she said. “There’s not one single problem and there’s not one single solution, which is good news. It means everybody can do something and to be successful, we really do need a wide array of actors mixed into these solutions. … This is not something that the government by itself can go fix and it’s not something that the market by itself can go fix. And if the market and the government get together and decide what’s best for the community, that might not work either. … It cannot be a single silo solution.”