Bobby Rush, D-Ill., would make fresh food more accessible for residents in low-income areas where supermarkets can be more than two miles away. The Food Desert Oasis Act of 2009 would designate certain cities as food desert zones, which would be treated much like enterprise zones, enticing certain businesses that derive at least 25 percent of their gross sales from fresh fruits and vegetables to receive tax incentives for opening supermarkets.
“We’re excited,” says Terry Richards, legislative counsel for Rush. “This is an opportunity to develop an economic base for employees, consumers and residents, and provide a significant opportunity to invest in healthy living.”
Richards says there is a food scarcity problem when people in low-income areas can’t easily obtain fresh, healthy food, but are bombarded with high-sugar, high-fat convenience food.
Under the bill, businesses would receive a rehabilitation tax credit in some instances, which would provide money for redevelopment in urban centers. Employers would receive a tax credit of $1,500 for every employee hired from within a food desert zone, and tax-exempt bonds would be used on a variety of store upgrades, including building, equipment and even product purchases.
“Those things are a very good idea because the prevalence of obesity is highest in the poorest areas where one of the problems is the access of healthy foods,” says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
Cities that would be designated food desert zones are Chicago; Detroit; Cleveland; Cincinnati; Milwaukee; Houston; San Antonio; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Kansas City, Mo.; St. Louis.; Indianapolis; Baltimore; Atlanta; Richmond, Va.; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Under the Food Desert Oasis Pilot Program, annual reports would be submitted to Congress. The reports would include an analysis of increases or decreases in the health of the residents in the food desert zones and the impact of the government investment in such areas. The bill was recently transferred to the House Committee on Ways and Means. The cost of the program is currently under review by the Congressional Budget Office.
Retailers and activists weigh in
“I think the food desert act sounds like a great idea. I don’t think that alone would make us expand into another neighborhood, but politically, I think it’s really a good thing. Here, we’ve had people disallow the licensing of another fast food [restaurant] in the northwest area. I think it’s good. I’d support the legislation.”
–Peggy Silvestrini, owner of Beans & Barley, a natural foods store in Milwaukee
“We’re in the process of trying to move our store to one of the food desert areas. We’re moving into an area that needs to be revitalized. There is no grocer in a 4-mile or larger radius. Having the experience that I’m going through now, I know this legislation is definitely a good thing. Where we are there is a large concentration of people in the area, but they have no resources to get their food. We’re looking to move because the buildings also are cheaper there and we’re looking to expand, but it’s not an area attractive to other businesses, so having an incentive like [the food desert law] would attract other businesses to an area like this.”
–Karen King, owner of Choices Natural Market, Rockford, Ill.
“Operators want to go into these communities, but they face barriers associated with financing. This is a health issue. One in five children is obese and more than 30 percent of children are overweight. It’s a costly epidemic. In 2008, obesity was responsible for $147 billion in medical costs, and that is expected to rise. The [healthy food] access problem is an issue in many communities, especially low-income, urban and rural, as well as communities of color. The leading health organizations say that increasing healthy food in underserved areas is critical.”
–Tracey Giang, senior associate of The Food Trust, which runs the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a statewide program that supports the development of supermarkets in underserved areas