- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2010

It has been decades since ‘60s groupies beckoned “come gather ‘round people … for the times they are a-changin’,” and the hippie movement spawned a wave of farmers markets and food cooperatives.

Times are indeed a-changin’ as that counterculture movement goes mainstream, including government efforts to help close the “grocery gap” in low-income, urban neighborhoods.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were hardly hippies, but the first lady’s campaign against childhood obesity and Washington’s funding priorities are helping to create a nationwide push against what they and other advocates consider dietary difficulties in parts of rural and urban America.

Supporters also cite the economic and employment advantages of these kinds of markets, but curbing rising obesity rates is the main target. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biennial report released earlier this month, 2.4 million additional Americans became obese between 2007 and 2009, bringing the total to 72.5 million, nearly 27 percent of the population.

According to the D.C. Health Department, 70 percent of the people in some neighborhoods are overweight or obese, and a major contributing cause is a lack of access to healthy food options.

“Some people are trapped in their communities and, for whatever reason, don’t have the kinds of choices they want,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and sponsor of the D.C. Feed Act, one of the latest examples of using government power or money to encourage farmers markets or co-ops to locate in low-income areas.

She called her legislation, which will come before the city council this fall, “the other bookend to our Healthy Schools Act.”

The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, which passed on a unanimous vote of the 13-member council this spring, mandates heathier meals in public schools.

“But that’s in the schools,” Mrs. Cheh said in a Thursday interview. She added that “much of what children do relates to what their parents do and happens at home.”

Advocates and lawmakers in Washington and elsewhere are leveraging tax dollars, and partnering with the private sector, to close so-called “grocery gaps” and “food deserts.” In such communities, fast-food options and liquor or convenience stores are plentiful, but grocers that sell fresh fruits and vegetables are in short supply.

One such “desert” is in North Philadelphia’s Norris Square area, which has no supermarket. Earlier this month, residents and city officials welcomed the opening of the city’s second publicly funded farmers market in Norris Square and announced that eight others are planned in low-income neighborhoods.

Walgreens, the national drugstore chain, is answering Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s call to close the grocery gap by providing produce to residents in the city’s underserved South Side. Walgreens stocks fresh fruits and vegetables in several other Chicago stores.

In Washington, D.C., advocates began pushing for supermarkets, co-ops and other options when Safeway closed its store near Bolling Air Force Base along the Anacostia River in 1998. At the time, it was the only supermarket in Ward 8 - the section of the city with the lowest incomes and home to lousy health statistics, including high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

D.C. officials have since used public-private partnerships to open grocery stores and hope the D.C. Feed Act, which was introduced in midsummer, will help broaden consumers’ options and stem some of the dietary-related ailments.

“This legislation is another tool in the toolbox to put grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods,” said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat. “When I joined the council [in 2005], there was not one grocery store in Ward 8. We used tax incentives traditionally given to downtown businesses to grocery stores.”

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