States Open New Doors to Healthy Food Access
|Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at 11:14 AM
Delores McQuinn knew her city of Richmond, Va., had challenges with access to healthy foods well before she was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2008.
“This little kid … would come to my house almost every other day to see if we had food for (him) and his siblings," she said. I realized … that there were some serious issues of people having access to food.”
McQuinn also recognized the area didn’t have supermarkets where residents could buy fresh produce and other healthy food items. The corner stores that were there weren’t necessarily selling food that was healthy or affordable.
“This particular district that I represent truly was a district that was in a food desert,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have few grocery stores or healthy, affordable food retail outlets.
When McQuinn got to the legislature, she heard from colleagues who represented more rural communities that they saw some of the same challenges in their districts. But, at least initially, she also found a lack of knowledge and understanding of the issue.
“I remember one of my colleagues asking me ‘what is a food dessert?’” she said. “People just didn’t know what food deserts were.”
So when McQuinn first introduced a resolution calling on the general assembly to create a task force to study the issue in 2012, it garnered little support. It wasn’t until the following year that the legislation was approved and the Food Desert Task Force was created, with the deans of the colleges of agriculture at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University serving as co-chairs.
The panel’s initial findings, issued in January 2014, showed that while Virginia is better off than some states in terms of food access, pockets of food deserts or inadequate access can be found in all cities and counties across the commonwealth.
Almost 18 percent of Virginia’s population lives in a food desert and 16.5 percent of Virginia’s children—about 300,000—are considered food insecure, meaning they can’t be sure from where their next meal will come.
The Food Desert Task Force offered several recommendations for consideration by the Virginia General Assembly. Among them:
Expanding grant opportunities to allow organizations to support urban and community gardens, mobile markets, community kitchens and food hubs;
Providing incentives for small businesses to develop local and healthy food enterprises in food desert areas; and
Providing funding for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a national program that helps communities gain access to healthy produce and nutrition education.