- Associated Press - Sunday, August 28, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers are once again looking for ways to ensure residents have easy access to healthy food even though previous efforts to address the problem have failed.

The newest ideas include grant programs and incentives to promote farmers markets, but the senator who is leading the push said he doesn’t see any simple fixes to eliminate food deserts in urban and rural areas.

“If there was an easy solution, we would have already done it,” said Sen. Matt Hansen, whose north Lincoln district has lost several grocery stores in recent years.

Hansen said some of his constituents must rely on relatives and friends or public transportation to shop for groceries because they don’t own a car. Without nearby stores that sell fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, others resort to fast-food restaurants.

Hansen introduced a bill earlier this year that would have established a state financing program to help stores install coolers for fresh food.

The measure stalled in committee, however, amid opposition from the grocery industry, which argued that giving money to certain stores could give them an unfair advantage over others.

Former state Sen. Brenda Council proposed similar measures to encourage businesses to offer healthy food options in distressed areas, but none passed. Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed one of the bills in 2011, saying the federal government already offers programs to provide access to healthy food. The following year, her bill to create a $300,000 state healthy food fund died in committee.

Nebraska has food deserts in urban and rural areas. Research has shown that a lack of access to healthy foods contributes to health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.

Last year, Wakefield in northeast Nebraska lost its only grocery store when the Fair Store closed after nearly a century in business. A Dollar General store recently opened to serve residents, but it doesn’t offer fresh produce or meat.

Residents are working with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to try to find an alternative, said Wakefield Mayor Mike Loofe. Without the store, many now have to drive 10 miles to Wayne. Others travel to South Sioux City, more than 30 miles away.

“We could certainly use a grocery store,” Loofe said. “I think they’re important to every community.”

Some of the highest rates of food insecurity for children are in western Nebraska, said Julia Tse, a policy associate with Voices for Children, an Omaha-based advocacy group. Other affected regions include north Omaha and portions of Sarpy County near Offutt Air Force Base.

The loss of grocery stores in north Lincoln has been hard on residents, said resident Mike DeKalb, the former president of a local community group. In January 2015, the small Hy-Vee Mainstreet store that served Lincoln’s University Place neighborhood joined a line of businesses that have closed over the years.

“Having them makes neighborhoods more saleable, walkable and vibrant,” DeKalb said. “You can say to people, ‘Come to our neighborhood and you can get whatever you want.’ And that’s all falling apart.”

Last year, the University of Nebraska announced plans to expand its research into food systems, including issues related to access. The commitment included $3.4 million in new grant funding for researchers looking to address the problem in rural and urban areas.

Advocates also point to the Circle C Market in Cody, a nonprofit, student-run grocery store that opened in 2013 to serve the northern Nebraska town’s 150 residents. The stores opened after community leaders received a $75,000 federal grant in 2009.

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