By Sen. Mark R. Warner
It isn’t rocket science. When you have to ride the bus an hour round-trip just to buy fresh vegetables, you eat fewer fresh vegetables. When the grocery store is a two-mile walk, but the fast food restaurant or corner store that only sells processed foods are just down the street, you’re probably going to end up eating more processed foods. Unfortunately, this is the daily reality for an estimated 39 million Americans who live in “food deserts” — areas with no grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and 10 or more miles in rural regions. Here in Hampton Roads, approximately 400,000 thousand people live in food deserts.
I don’t think it’s right that, in the richest country in the world, a person’s ZIP code should be a sentence to a lifetime of poor nutrition and the health problems that go with it. Families in Virginia deserve reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live. That’s why I introduced legislation to help end food deserts here in Virginia and around the country.
This bipartisan legislation would spark investment in food deserts across the country by providing tax credits or grants to providers who open a new store or retrofit an existing store to offer more fresh foods.
A big part of the challenge is convincing grocers to take a chance on investing in a neighborhood that may be lower income and may not have had a grocery store for many years. My bill would provide a one-time tax credit to help grocers “get to yes” on investing in food desert neighborhoods.
But while bringing more grocery stores to food deserts is an important part of the solution, it can’t be our only approach. There is likely no single silver bullet to ending food deserts and the problems associated with them. Just putting some organic produce on the shelf won’t be enough on its own to change nutritional habits in communities where fresh foods have been scarce for many years.
That’s where community organizations and food banks are absolutely essential. Across the country, community organizations are experimenting with mobile food markets and other solutions that reintroduce fresh produce directly into food deserts. This legislation would also support these innovative efforts.
Hampton Roads is surrounded by some of the best sources of fresh food — the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay. We need to rebuild the connections between farmers and the communities that eat their food.
This legislation may not end food deserts once and for all. But that doesn’t mean the federal government shouldn’t use its resources to help solve a problem that affects millions of Americans and contributes to serious, but preventable, health problems.
I reject the notion that only those who can afford a car or a house near a grocery store deserve access to healthy food. If we have the tools to help military families, people of color or people with lower incomes get better access to healthy foods, then we should use them.
The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act takes these tools that we have — tax credits to help build grocery stores or expand their healthy food sections, grants for food banks and mobile food options — and it puts them to work.
This a solvable problem. It’s time for Congress to do its part and empower communities to end food deserts.