Officials seek to attract grocery stores to ‘food deserts’

Community members working with food access programs questioned the Healthy Food Access for All Americans act and how it would effect local residents. Communities worry that development incentives could lead to gentrification. | Photo: Capital News Service
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RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — Reflecting national concerns over “food deserts,” federal and state lawmakers Monday called for legislation to help people in low-income neighborhoods get better access to fresh vegetables and other healthy foods.

The officials discussed food insecurity at a town-hall-style meeting at the Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond’s East End, where poverty is high and full-fledged grocery stores are scarce.

In 2019 in America, “nobody should go to bed hungry at night,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who hosted the meeting.

“Too often, what we have are communities — urban and rural — where there may be a corner store, but you walk in to that corner store, and you may have large volumes of food, but it’s not healthy food.”

Warner was joined by members of the Virginia General Assembly and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, as well as by staff members of U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin of Richmond. About 60 residents also attended the meeting.

Warner and McEachin, both Democrats, are co-sponsoring federal legislation called the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act. It would provide tax credits and grants to grocery stores, food banks and other organizations that provide healthy foods in underserved communities. Entities would undergo a certification process to qualify for financial assistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 37 million Americans live in food deserts. In urban areas, individuals are considered to be living in a food desert if they must travel more than one mile to buy affordable, healthy food. In rural areas, it is considered a food desert if access is 10 miles away.

Under the proposed HFAAA, businesses would apply for certification as Special Access Food Providers. A certified store that opens in a food desert could receive a one-time 15% tax credit. Businesses that have been remodeled or rehabilitated to qualify as grocery stores would receive a one-time tax credit of 10%.

To meet these qualifications, at least 35% of a store’s products must be fresh produce, poultry, dairy and deli items.

Under the HFAAA, grants would be awarded to food banks to cover 15% of the costs of building a permanent structure in a food desert. “Temporary access merchants,” such as nonprofit farmers markets and some food banks, could receive grants for up to 10% their annual operating cost.

State legislators in Virginia have also been pushing to address food insecurity. During this year’s legislative session, a bill to provide funding for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores unanimously passed in the Senate but died in the House of Delegates.

SB 999, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin and Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, would have established the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund and provided $5 million to help approved food providers in underserved communities.

Warner complimented Democratic Dels. Delores McQuinn of Richmond and Lamont Bagby of Henrico for their efforts as well.

“Delores and Lamont and others have been trying to move this issue forward with a series of Virginia-based initiatives,” Warner said. “What Donald (McEachin) and I have tried to do at the federal level is to say, ‘How can we as a federal government provide some additional assistance?’”

Like SB 999 at the Virginia Capitol, the HFAAA before Congress has bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is also sponsoring the act.

Richmond residents at Monday’s discussion agreed that work must be done to address food insecurity in Virginia, but many expressed concerns about how the HFAAA would affect the community.

Individuals said they fear that offering incentives to open grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods would lead to gentrification as wealthier people move in and poorer residents are pushed out. Development in disadvantaged communities could lead to higher rents and the loss of small businesses.

Warner said he wants to make sure residents are protected from negative impacts. He said he hopes to “see if there’s a way in my legislation to give recipients an extra benefit if they live in the community.”