The initiative was announced by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The two cabinet members appeared with First Lady Michelle Obama, who recently launched the Let's Move! campaign to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation.
[Video of First Lady Michelle Obama talking about the Let's Move! campaign]
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will promote a range of interventions that expand access to nutritious foods, including developing and equipping grocery stores and other small businesses and retailers selling healthy food in communities that currently lack these options. Residents of these communities, which are sometimes called "food deserts" and are often found in economically distressed areas, are typically served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer little or no fresh produce. Lack of healthy, affordable food options can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Through this new multi-year Healthy Food Financing Initiative and by engaging with the private sector, the Obama Administration will work to eliminate food deserts across the country within seven years. With the first year of funding, the Administration's initiative will leverage enough investments to begin expanding healthy foods options into as many as one-fifth of the nation's food deserts and create thousands of jobs in urban and rural communities across the nation.
To help community leaders identify the food deserts in their area, USDA recently launched a Food Environment Atlas.. This new online tool allows for the identification of counties where, for example, more than 40% of the residents have low incomes and live more than one mile from a grocery store. Nationwide, USDA estimates that 23.5 million people, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. Of the 23.5 million, 11.5 million are low-income individuals in households with incomes at or below 200% of the poverty line. Of the 2.3 million people living in low-income rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket, 1.1 million are low-income.
"Our effort to improve access to healthy and affordable food is a critically important step toward First Lady Michelle Obama's goal to solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation," said Agriculture Secretary Vilsack. "The Healthy Food Financing Initiative will enhance access to healthy and affordable choices in struggling urban and rural communities, create jobs and economic development, and establish market opportunities for farmers and ranchers."
Effective local programs, such as those in Pennsylvania, have shown that well-targeted financial and technical assistance can create viable businesses that provide healthier options in communities that lack access to healthy foods. These investments not only improve food options, but also create jobs, help revitalize distressed communities, and, importantly, open up new markets for farmers to sell their products, which can provide an economic boost to rural America. By better connecting producers and consumers, a stronger connection between cities and rural parts of the country can be built, which helps create new opportunities for farmers and ranchers.
Through the joint initiative, which was included in the President's Budget for 2011, the Departments of Treasury, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services (HHS) would make available more than $400 million in financial and technical assistance to community development financial institutions, other nonprofits, and businesses with sound strategies for addressing the healthy food needs of communities. The initiative will make available a mix of federal tax credits, below-market rate loans, loan guarantees, and grants to attract private sector capital that will more than double the total investment. Federal funds will support projects ranging from the construction or expansion of a grocery store to smaller-scale interventions such as placing refrigerated units stocked with fresh produce in convenience stores.
"Encouraging people to choose fresh, nutritious food is important," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "But to achieve that goal that kind of food must be available, and in far too many parts of our country—both urban and rural communities—that's not the case. This collaborative initiative is a creative way to help solve that problem, while at the same time working to strengthen the economy of low-income communities through business development and job creation."
Each of the three agencies brings a particular expertise and set of resources to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, specifically:
Since millions of Americans walk out their front doors every day and see nothing but fast food and convenience stores that sell high-fat, high-sugar, processed foods, this initiative is extremely important as all people need access to healthy, locally-produces food. However, it's important to note that this is still just a funding recommendation, but you can help to make sure that this recommendation stands up to the budget resolution and reconciliation process. Change.org has created an online petition, which you can sign to tell Congress to fully fund the national Healthy Food Financing Initiative.
If the funds are approved, I will be very interested to see whether any money finds its way to St. Louis, and if so, how it's used. I think we can agree that it's needed here.