Food desert

Move to help state eliminate food deserts heads to House

Betsy PriceGovernment, Headlines

Food desert

A bill that would help the state identify food deserts and push healthier, fresher food into them heads to the Delaware House with lots of support. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya/Pexels

A proposal to launch a three-year pilot program focuses on eliminating food deserts in Delaware has broad support as it heads to the Delaware House of Representatives.
The goal is to provide health food options for people who now don’t have much access to fresh fruit, vegetables and meat and tend to survive on fast food and other readily available products loaded with fat, sodium and sugar.
Under Senate Bill 254 (S), the state would authorize a state study of where help is needed and incentives and assistance that can help independent corner stores, food pantries, local governments and other providers expand the healthy food options available in targeted communities.
“Anything we can do to find creative solutions for access to healthy foods is an important endeavor,” said Julie Miro Wenger, executive director of the Delaware Food Industry Council. “There are no easy solutions when it comes to sustainable models for some of our food deserts in underserved communities. We certainly would like to be part of the solution and welcome the opportunity to participate in developing the strategy to increase food access.”
Food deserts can occur in poorer and more rural areas. Grocery stores often make decisions about where to put stores based on both income and total nearby population. Inner cities can get ignored, and so can rural areas where people are more spread out.
Yet, access to fresh food is critical, because nutrition often is the first line of offense in populations battling high rates of obsesity, diabetes and other illnesses often tied to diet, while often also having limited access to medical care. That leads to other medical problems and early deaths.
SB 254, sponsored by Sen. Darius Brown, D-Wilmington, would require the State of Delaware to develop a holistic, statewide strategy for reducing food insecurity, while creating a new grant program to help strengthen the existing network of small businesses, nonprofits and other organizations already giving underserved communities their only access to fresh, healthy food.
“While people have been talking about our worsening food deserts for over a decade, we have seen very little progress in terms of making healthy foods readily available to the Delaware families living in urban and rural neighborhoods across our state who do not have reasonable access to a grocery store or supermarket,” said Brown. “We simply can’t wait any longer for the national supermarket chains to fix our problems for us.”
He is not alone is in his concern.
“The Delaware Grocery Initiative is a measured step, not a cure-all, in addressing the complex challenge of slowing escalating healthcare costs,” said Joseph Fulgham, director of Policy & Communications for the House Republican Caucus. “We know better food choices lead to better health outcomes, and this initiative aims to empower residents by increasing access to healthy, affordable groceries. The three-year sunset provision will allow the legislature to assess the effectiveness of this approach before deciding whether to extend it or explore alternative solutions.”
“This bill recognizes there are areas within the state where Delawareans do not have access to readily available nutritional food options,” said Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Dover. “A lack of nutritional options can be directly correlated to poor health among Delawareans who live in identified food deserts.”

Food desert plan

Brown’s bill would create the Delaware Grocery Initiative by converting a federally-funded pandemic-era program focused on strengthening resiliency in the food supply chain into a state-funded program that makes sure the state’s food supply chain reaches more Delawareans.
The Delaware Grocery Initiative will allow the Delaware Division of Small Business to offer incentives and assistance to businesses in targeted communities, similar to the way state economic development programs are currently used to incentivize job creation.
To assist the Division of Small Business in identifying food insecurity risks, the Delaware Council on Farm and Food Policy in the Delaware Department of Agriculture will be tasked with collecting input from farmers, retailers, distributors and other food supply experts to develop a strategy.
It may include recommending investments and other reforms to provide nutrient-rich foods in areas without grocery stores or areas at risk of losing the limited options that do exist.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area that has either a poverty rate greater than or equal to 20% or a median family income not exceeding 80% of the median family income in urban areas, or 80% of the statewide median family income in nonurban areas.
According to the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration, 6 out of 10 Delawareans live in an area with no grocery store nearby while 1 in 4 live in an area with only one grocery store within walking distance or a short commute.
The lack of affordable and healthy food options in 16 of Delaware’s 21 Senate Districts is a contributing factor to higher food insecurity rates in the First State than the national average. Feeding America says an estimated 1 in 6 children struggle with hunger in Delaware.
SB 254 includes a provision that says the Delaware Grocery Initiative after three years without additional action by the Delaware General Assembly.
Funding for the program would be set by the state’s annual operating budget at the discretion of the governor and the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
The bill is not yet scheduled for a committee hearing. The General Assembly session ends June 30.

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