Partnerships Aim To Put An End To “Food Deserts”

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Michelle healthy eatingLast month, First Lady Michelle Obama teamed with the Partnership for a Healthier America to announce a new plan to put an end to the nation?s many ?food deserts??low-income areas across the country characterized by a shortage of stores that supply affordable and nutritious food options. ???

?We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise,? Mrs. Obama said in a statement, ?but if parents can?t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local mini-mart, then all that is just talk.???

Many seem to have taken heed of the first lady?s clarion call, as some of the country?s biggest supermarket chains signed on to her campaign to eradicate food wastelands across the U.S. SUPERVALU, Walgreens, Walmart and a host of other regional retailers pledged to open or expand more than 1,500 store locations in underserved areas nationwide over the next five years, according to the White House. The new or expanded stores are expected to serve upwards of 9.5 million Americans.??

And New York, the largest city in the U.S. with over 8 million people, appears to have found an effective way to spur development by local supermarket chains.??

Last Thursday, a group of elected officials, community leaders and business interests gathered in the South Bronx to announce the opening of a 35,000-square-foot Western Beef supermarket that will serve the largely low-income, predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood?known for being one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, with over a quarter of a million, or close to 40%, of its residents living below the poverty line. ???

The store, which will also supply a much-needed boost to the local economy by creating over 120 new jobs, say officials, is the first to open under the city?s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program, a two-year-old effort aimed at increasing access to healthier food in underserved areas. The program incentivizes the establishment and retention of neighborhood supermarkets by providing zoning and financial incentives to eligible grocery store operators and developers like Western Beef. ????

Under the program, approximately half, or $5.6 million, of the total $11.5 million price tag for the construction of the new supermarket was paid for by various real estate and sales tax exemptions approved by the New York City Industrial Development Agency early last year, with the supermarket chain providing the remainder of the funding.??

The FRESH program was implemented as a response to the results of a study by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg?s Food Policy Task Force that found that many low-income areas across the city?s five boroughs were underserved by neighborhood grocery stores. On a national scale, the White House estimates ?that approximately 23.5 million Americans?6.5 million children among them?currently live in low-income communities that lack stores likely to sell affordable and healthy foods. ???

New York City Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said, ?Obesity and Type 2 diabetes are epidemic in New York City,? adding that increasing access to healthy food alternatives across the city?s food deserts was ?critical to addressing these chronic diseases.???

Studies, Dr. Farley noted, show that improved access to supermarkets is often associated with an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables, a rise in healthy eating habits and an overall reduction in obesity.??

Mortality rates between the country?s low-income and high-income earners also vary widely, as Americans with more disposable income are better able to afford healthier food options as well as better access to health and medical care if and when they get sick.??

The Obama administration, for its part, appears to be taking the problem seriously. The president?s 2012 budget allocates up to $330 million in financial support to community groups, nonprofits, public agencies and businesses who can develop feasible strategies for addressing the healthy food needs of low-income communities.