- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Shrinking pockets of North Carolina with limited access to fresh, healthful foods is challenging and ultimately requires a nongovernment solution, the leader of a General Assembly committee looking at the issue said Monday.

The House assembled a panel to examine these gaps, or “food deserts,” in part after a national chain closed two grocery stores in southeast Raleigh.

“In the end, some of these things are decisions that business people will make as to whether they’ll build a grocery store in a certain area,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell and a committee co-chairman. “So I think we’re somewhat limited in what we can do. But at least by studying it, we’re able to highlight the problem and keep it in front of the General Assembly.”

The panel met four times, hearing about the challenges of accessing healthful foods at reasonable prices in these zones, as well as possible solutions to encourage fresh fruit and vegetable sales at convenience stores and inclusion on school cafeteria trays.

The panel’s report to other legislators, who return for their annual work session next month, says more than 1.5 million people in North Carolina live in at least 349 food deserts in 80 counties, citing federal data.

The deserts are defined as areas of high poverty where at least 33 percent of residents live at least a mile from a large grocery store in urban areas. In rural areas, the distance is at least 10 miles. Those who live in the deserts are more likely to have diet-related health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The problem is “certainly bigger, deeper and broader than I ever imagined,” Starnes said.

The committee recommended five items to the full General Assembly, including finding ways to expand participation in the school breakfast program for students in low-income families. Although more than half of North Carolina’s public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, only 25 percent participate in the breakfast program, the report said.

The panel also recommended more school districts participate in the North Carolina Farm to School program, which supplies locally grown food to cafeterias. The program supplied more than 1.7 million pounds of produce in 92 districts during the 2012-13 school year, the report said. But some districts can’t participate because they lack a warehouse to receive the produce or schools lack coolers to store it, a legislative liaison for the state Agriculture Department, Joy Hicks, told lawmakers.

The committee also proposed a bill supporters say will improve the operation of a federal food stamp program the state runs to encourage healthful eating choices among recipients. The panel also wants to create a joint House-Senate committee to study food desert issues further.

“I would have liked for us to just come up a bill and just - whoosh - and solved all the problems,” said Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake, who raised questions about food deserts last year after the Raleigh store closings. “I just think that this is a beginning.”


Information from: The News & Observer, http://www.newsobserver.com

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