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Four ways cities across the U.S. are fighting hunger

May 16, 2016

How close do you live to the nearest grocery store? I live within ten minutes of at least three chain grocery stores: Kroger, Meijer and Walmart. But places to buy quality, affordable food are not easily accessed by everyone.

Almost 24 million people in the U.S. live in "food deserts." These are neighborhoods with limited access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food sources. This is mostly due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers. 

Nearly half of people who live in food deserts are also low-income. Residents in food deserts are more likely to have lower levels of education, earn lower incomes, and to be unemployed. They are also more likely to be people of color. And about 2.3 million Americans live in low-income, rural areas that are more than 10 miles from the nearest supermarket.

A study from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council found:

  • African-American populations had half as much access to chain supermarkets as Caucasians;
  • Hispanic populations had one-third the access to chain supermarkets as non-Hispanics;
  • Lower-income neighborhoods overall had less access to chain stores than middle- and upper-income neighborhoods; and
  • Independent, non-chain stores were more prevalent in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities than in predominantly Caucasian communities.

Cities across the country have implemented initiatives that address the impact of access to healthy, affordable food. Last week the Center for American Progress released a report exploring four of these initiatives:

1. Healthy corner store initiatives

Neighborhoods in food deserts typically have more corner stores than wealthier neighborhoods. These stores often serve foods that lack nutritional value and are high in calories and fat – things like chips, sweets, and sugary beverages.

In 2011, Washington D.C's DC Central Kitchen launched its Healthy Corners program. The organization delivers healthy produce to 67 stores in Washington's low-income neighborhoods. While some wholesalers were initially unwilling to deliver small amounts of fresh produce to corner stores, today the initiative has sold more than 88,000 units of healthy food in low-income communities.

2. Nonprofit grocery stores

The nonprofit grocery store is a mission-driven supermarket established to give community residents access to fresh, low-cost food.

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) was created in 2004. It's a grant or loan program designed to decrease financial barriers to supermarkets. According to the CAP report:

Since its initiation in 2004, FFFI has committed more than $73.2 million in loans and $12.1 million in grants to preserve, develop, or expand 88 food retail projects in underserved low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as well as rural areas like Derry and Williamsburg.

More than 400,000 residents have benefited, and 5,023 jobs throughout the state have been created or retained. The initiative was also used as a model for the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI).

3. Food cooperatives

Food cooperatives are a type of food-retail business model in which members make decisions regarding food production and distribution through a democratic process. They provide consumers with cost-effective ways to buy more products that align with their values, like buying in bulk, buying products from companies that are environmentally or socially responsible in their practices, or are locally produced.

The Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia, Washington buys directly from local and regional producers and farms in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. It provides community classes in things like cooking, gardening, social justice, and sustainable living. It also provides free clothing, books, and kitchenware. The co-op has a tiered system for membership fees according to whether a customer is a senior, has a disability, or is low-income.

4. Farm to school

The National Farm to School Network increases access to fresh, healthy food and local food producers by transforming food procurement practices and curricula in schools.

According to the CAP report:

As of 2015, there were 221 farm-to-school grants, and roughly 40 percent of these were used to purchase food locally for more than 40,000 separate schools and 25 million kids. Farm-to-school programs typically include at least one of the following: procurement policies that focus on purchasing, promoting, and serving local foods in school cafeterias; education as students participate in activities related to agriculture, food, health, or nutrition; and school gardens where students can engage in hands-on learning.

Vermont schools spend a larger share of their annual food budgets on locally sourced foods than schools in any other state.  The Vermont Farm to School Grant Program connects food producers to local schools, and provides enriched educational experiences and curricula. According to the CAP report, the program has reached 30 percent of school and more than 27,000 students in the state.

Hunger adversely affects both children and adults. Kids can experience increased risk of poor performance in school, behavioral problems, and chronic illnesses like obesity. And adults are more likely to have long-term physical and mental health problems.

Let's hope these models lead to a standard for fighting hunger, and give everyone access to the nutritious food they need.