Legislation to decrease food deserts, specifically in inner cities, overcame its first hurdle in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday. The Healthy Food Financing Act, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), would establish a statewide program to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved communities.
In many inner cities, grocery stores have closed leaving communities with nowhere to buy fresh food, but Senator Gardenhire said he wants to change this. Through Senate Bill 1619, the lawmaker hopes to incentivize grocery stores to locate in inner cities through the Healthy Foods Financing Fund. The fund would offer state, federal and private grants and loans, as well as federal tax cuts and other forms of financial assistance to construct, rehabilitate or expand grocery stores in under-served communities.
“When 21 percent of Tennesseans don’t have access to affordable healthy food options, it is no wonder that Tennessee ranks among the bottom states for obesity,” said Senator Gardenhire. “There is a huge need for the Healthy Food Financing Act to address this quality of life issue. We are trying to alleviate a major problem in our inner cities where food deserts absolutely exist.”
The new program would be administered by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. In order to qualify for the program, an applicant must meet certain guidelines which include allocating at least 30 percent of food retail space for the sale of perishable goods, promoting the hiring of local residents, and demonstrating the capacity to successfully implement the project with the likelihood it will be economically self-sustaining.
“I’ve met with many large chain grocery stores,” added Senator Gardenhire. “They simply do not find it profitable to go into inner city neighborhoods for a myriad of reasons, which is why these incentives are needed. The citizens in these neighborhoods have to rely on public transportation to get to a grocery store. This is a problem for many residents because a lot public transportation does not run after 5 or 6 p.m.”
According to a study by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) 21 percent of the state’s population lives in areas considered food deserts – 15 percent in urban food deserts and 6 percent in rural food deserts. Research has found that people living in food deserts tend to have a less nutritious diet and poorer health outcomes than those living in other communities.
“In addition to increasing access to fresh healthy foods, it is also important to educate communities about their benefits,” said Senator Gardenhire. “Ultimately, it is my hope that we can address both access and education to facilitate lifestyle changes that will have an impact for generations to come.”