Investing in more than just a supermarket

For those of us who have always had easy access to healthy food, a supermarket is probably just a place to buy groceries. But for the millions of Americans living in low-income neighborhoods marked by decades of disinvestment and unemployment, the opening of a local supermarket can revitalize their community — creating new jobs, attracting new businesses, and laying the groundwork for better health.

That is why programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) are so vital. Since 2011, the national Healthy Food Financing Initiative has awarded over $100 million in grants to help bring small and independent grocery stores, farmers markets, cooperatives, and healthy food hubs to low-income neighborhoods — investments that have been a game-changer for the lives and livelihoods of people living in these communities. As the House and Senate continue to mark up their funding bills for fiscal year 2016, it’s imperative that this program receive the funding necessary to continue this work.

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That access to supermarkets and other food retailers helps people live healthier lives is a given — more than 300 studies over the past 20 years have documented the link between neighborhood access to healthy food, improved eating habits, and long-term positive health outcomes.  These community-level changes will not happen overnight — as several studies have pointed out, significant changes in dietary intake and obesity can take months, if not years, to play out — but the simple truth underlying these programs remains the same: Without access to healthy food, any other efforts to reduce obesity will fail. With two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children ages 10 to 17 overweight or obese in America — and related health care costs exceeding $147 billion annually — we cannot afford to overlook this basic perquisite for health.  

Improving community health is a powerful rationale for local, state, and federal programs working to bring food retailers to traditionally underserved communities, but not the only one. Though perhaps less likely to make headlines, the impact on jobs and neighborhood vitality is equally as important. 

We know from trailblazing programs in Philadelphia and the federal government’s recent investments through the HFFI that opening a supermarket in an under-resourced neighborhood creates steady job opportunities and boosts local economies.

The average large, full-service supermarket employs 150 to 200 full- and part-time employees and has weekly sales of $200,000 to $300,000. HFFI grants and loans have created or retained more than 3,000 jobs in 30 different states since 2011. Supermarkets also act as a civic anchor, multiplying their own economic impact by drawing other businesses to set up shop nearby, adding to local tax revenue, and even boosting property values by 4 to 7 percent according to a study in Philadelphia. Particularly in rural areas, supermarkets can also support local farmers by offering nearby venues to sell their crops. 

No one should be deprived of access to healthy food simply because of their zip code or the size of their paycheck. Yet we live in a country where more than 29 million Americans in low-income communities and communities of color lack access to affordable, healthy food. Predominately black zip codes, for example, have about half as many supermarkets as predominantly white zip codes.  Predominantly latino areas have only a third as many.

HFFI has begun to the turn the tide for this unacceptable state of affairs, so much so, that in 2014, the Farm Bill made HFFI a permanent fixture within the United States Department of Agriculture and authorized up to $125 million for its implementation. We must capitalize on these initial investments by ensuring that HFFI can scale up the success it’s had in Philadelphia and other early-adopting cities.

Advocates are requesting that Congress allocate $35 million for HFFI in FY2016 through the Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI) to continue and strengthen its work. This is an opportunity to spur health, vitality, and financial security for thousands of struggling neighborhoods around the country.

The bottom line is: neighborhood supermarkets are not only an indispensable piece of a community health strategy, they are part of a larger vision for reinvestment for communities too long left behind.

Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a position she has held since 2003.

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