Healthy Food Financing Act addresses need for access to fresh, nutritious food
Alabama is a state with vast natural resources; home-grown, farm-raised, or fresh-caught food products. Which is why it seems to me like such a disconnect for a large portion of our population – 1.8 million Alabamians including nearly half a million children – to live in communities with little or no access to fresh and healthy food. Alabama is among the top 10 states with the highest percentage of residents with insufficient access to fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grains, and fresh meat and seafood. The supply is there, but the access is not. Consider this: Alabamians who live 5 miles from the coast where fishing boats bring in the daily fresh catch may be 20 miles to the nearest grocery store.
The result is known as a “food desert.” The Alabama Department of Public Health describes food deserts as a neighborhood or town “with no immediate access to quality foods that support a healthy diet.” They exist all across the State in rural and urban areas -- even in your own community. I challenge you to think about how far you currently drive or are willing to drive to get to a grocery store, and add five miles. Then consider if you didn’t have a reliable means of transportation. How would these factors affect where you obtained food for you and your family? Thousands of Alabamians face those challenges every day. Rather than a healthy balance of nutritious foods, people who live in food deserts often opt for the unhealthy, over processed food choices which lead to higher rates of health problems, obesity, and mortality.
Fortunately, the Legislature recognizes the problem and, with the help of legislation sponsored by Sen. Greg Reed (R-Jasper) and supported by advocacy groups like VOICES for Alabama’s Children, the State is on target to increase Alabamians’ access to fresh and nutritious foods. SB 260 establishes the Healthy Food Financing Act, enabling legislation to establish a statewide, revolving loan fund program to incentivize grocers and other fresh food retailers to open, renovate or expand in communities with limited access to fresh, healthy food. The legislation also sets out criteria for participants, including the expectation that stores allocate at least 30 percent of the food retail space for healthy and nutritious food like fresh or frozen dairy, fresh produce, whole grains, fresh meats, poultry, and fish. They’re also required to promote the hiring of local residents, an added bonus.
Good nutrition positively impacts children’s growth, development, and ability to learn; attributes to long-term educational and professional success, and cuts down on health care costs. We spend a great deal of time and money trying to fix each of those issues, but if we can provide a way to increase access to healthy food, we can treat the root of the problem. And what a better way to utilize Alabama’s plentiful natural resources than for the good of our own residents?
Having passed the Senate, the bill is moving through the process in the House. Final passage of the legislation is of great interest to me not only as Lt. Governor, but as spokesperson for End Child Hunger in Alabama. Healthy food financing programs create jobs, boost local economies, and reverse state health trends. The Legislature takes up hundreds of bills each Session, many of them complex. But this is simple. We have the need and we have the resources to make an impact. The Healthy Food Financing Act is legislation that makes sense and I hope you’ll join me in supporting it.