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Cultivating ideas on urban ‘grocery gap’

District measures aim to supply healthier food choices

- 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."

Mr. Brown said public-private partnerships are paying off in Ward 8, where Yes Organic Market is slated for an Aug. 31 ribbon-cutting ceremony of a store on Pennsylvania Avenue in the Southeast quadrant's Fairlawn neighborhood.

The Cheh bill, like the initiatives in other cities and states, will involve several local and federal policies, including acceptance of food stamps and zoning regulations.

Mrs. Cheh's bill also calls for expanding the bureaucracy by creating a "grocery ambassador," who would be responsible for assisting retailers in building or renovating stores in certain areas of the city.

If the measure passes, the city would join Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania and other jurisdictions by taking advantage of the hundreds of millions of federal dollars in President Obama's Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The money will be distributed to states and localities to help subsidize retailers.

In New York, Gov. David A. Paterson launched his anti-obesity campaign before the Obamas took up residence in the White House.

His five-point Healthy Food-Healthy Communities Initiative includes a soda tax, which the District has emulated but New York lawmakers failed to approve, and provides loans to food markets in lower-income communities.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is piggybacking on the governor's plan. His FRESH Program is the first in the nation to combine zoning and financial incentives to boost the number of fresh-food options in multiple underserved neighborhoods. FRESH will help create or upgrade more than two dozen grocery stores, retain 400 jobs and create 1,100 new ones, city officials said.

The D.C. and New York initiatives have something else in common - a grocery ambassador, except in New York it's called a "healthy food and fitness business development coordinator."

The nitty-gritty of the D.C. bill will be ironed out, said Mrs. Cheh and Mr. Brown, who are in the midst of election battles.

But, Mrs. Cheh said, "I'm hoping to have it done this fall regardless of what happens on Sept. 14," the day of the primaries.

"Given the nature of the bill, which also helps economic development and jobs, I can't imagine opposition," Mrs. Cheh said.

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