Unjust Deserts 

The state needs to facilitate a plan to address the lack of healthy food options for 400,000 Tennesseans.

As someone who is privileged to have several nice, full-service grocery stores in my community, I am concerned that more than 29.7 million people in our country are being denied this same privilege, resulting in far too few options for them to eat healthy foods. Many low- to moderate-income families are forced to depend on small convenience stores that have very few, if any, affordable options, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Since 2011, a private/public partnership has been brewing in Tennessee that will provide incentives to bring full-service grocery stores to low-income communities labeled as "food deserts" — defined as areas with no full-service grocery stores within five miles.

The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation funded the Food Trust to facilitate a Tennessee plan to address access to healthy foods. The Tennessee Grocery Task Force was convened, representing community organizations, the grocery industry, state government, and multiple coalitions. The task force met over an 18-month period and produced a well-crafted plan in April 2012 that identified the need to address food financing as a key mechanism to eliminate food deserts throughout Tennessee.

Subsequent to the report, the co-chairs, in partnership with the American Heart Association and the Tennessee Obesity Task Force, met with the governor's staff to advocate for a clear platform toward eliminating the state's food deserts. In general, there was receptiveness, but a continued need exists to educate legislators on the broader issues of food insecurity, the statewide cost of obesity (estimated at $3.6 billion), and the significant increase in chronic disease associated with the lack of access to healthy food choices in low- to moderate-income rural and urban communities.

This is not a new idea. It is happening all across the country. Last month, Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 2014, the latest Farm Bill, which will establish a national Healthy Food Financing Initiative at the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Tennessee now has an opportunity to follow the example of what other communities have done. Pennsylvania, for instance, created a statewide fund of $30 million that generated 88 grocery stores and added 5,000 new jobs and $190 million in total investment dollars. That state's action brought healthy food choices to more than 400,000 people who previously did not have access and who had few options to feed their children. Children are clearly the most affected by this lack of access to healthy food options, and obesity rates are only one measure of the effect of food deserts on our kids. Other impacts include an increase in early diagnosis of diabetes and various forms of joint diseases.

In Tennessee, nearly one million people, including more than 200,000 children, live in food deserts. But those numbers should significantly decrease with a $10 million seed investment that is projected to stimulate $50 million of business investments. That should yield 10 to 15 supermarkets and 700-1,500 new direct jobs with total annual retail sales of $91 million and annual payroll of $9 million.

Right this minute in Tennessee, the American Heart Association is advocating for the state to pass legislation that would look at the food desert issue and develop an initiative to tackle the food desert problem in the state.

The American Heart Association has also partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative aimed at helping young people eat healthier foods and be more active. The initiative looks at six key areas, including improving the nutritional quality of snack foods and beverages in schools, reducing consumption of sugary beverages, protecting children from the marketing of unhealthy foods, and increasing access to safe places for children to be active. In addition, the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County have endorsed food financing as a priority, which provides bipartisan support for this important issue.

We can't expect the next generation to grow up healthy if they do not have access to nutritious foods. Developing a statewide fresh food financing initiative to tackle this issue will be the best way to improve the health of all of our communities — and for future generations.

Let's make our legislators see the importance of giving all our children the right to eat more healthfully and live longer and happier lives.

Renee' S. Frazier is CEO of Healthy Memphis Common Table and a past co-chair of the Tennessee Grocery Task Force.

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