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This article was authored by Amy Stone and Haley Smoot.
Three Southern legislatures have made progress on laws that could help close the gap on the lack of access that millions of their residents have to healthy, fresh food. Still, more work is needed to fund the efforts.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 25 and 30 million Americans lack access to a grocery store and live in “food deserts”– living more than a mile away in urban areas and 10 miles away in rural places. Studies show this can contribute to a poor diet, which can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
In Alabama, a mapping report earlier this year by VOICES for Alabama’s Children and The Food Trust showed that every county in the state has at least one neighborhood with limited access to fresh food, and that this reality affects 1.8 million people – nearly half of them children.
This month, and after just one year of winding through the state legislature, Alabama’s governor signed the Healthy Food Financing Act which will give incentives to grocery stores and other retailers to develop in areas of Alabama with limited access to healthy food. The cash-strapped state, however, has yet to fund the initiative. Because of an impasse, lawmakers will head into special session later this summer to hash out the state budget, but it’s unclear whether they will address the new healthy food law.
In North Carolina, lawmakers have built momentum toward passing a Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which would be funded with $1 million. The money would go to local health departments, which would then provide grants to help store owners in food deserts with education about healthy food; buying equipment such as shelves and refrigeration for fresh fruits and vegetables; and connecting with local farmers and fisherman.
According to a poll released by the North Carolina Alliance for Health and funded by the American Heart Association, 70 percent of state residents favored the creation of a Healthy Corner Store Initiative. The survey by Public Opinion Strategies included 500 registered voters, and has a margin of error of 4.38 percent.
But funding in North Carolina still isn’t complete. The House version of the state’s budget included the provision while the Senate’s did not. The state’s budget negotiators recently took a summer break from negotiations and won’t return until after mid-July.
Finally, Louisiana passed a Healthy Food Retail Act six years ago to help grocers and farmers markets expand into areas lacking access to fresh foods. The state, however, has not provided funding for the law. Despite coming close this year with bipartisan support in the midst of a budget crisis, the governor recently removed $400,000 for the program from the state’s budget.
In an article published last year, researchers mapped areas around the country based on rural poverty, health and food access. The authors found that “lower access to healthy foods tends to be clustered in the southern United States and a smaller region of the southwestern United States” – the same areas that have higher rural poverty and lower healthy outcomes. Still, the report said more research is needed to directly tie lack of food access to poor health.
Read more about what is going on around healthy food financing initiatives across the South through updates about initiatives in Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina in the full article published in the Huffington Post.