Rep. McEachin takes major step to erase food deserts from Southside Virginia

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Nov. 21, 2017 | 1:41 p.m. 

DINWIDDIE – This week, millions of Americans will join together around dining room tables for food and fellowship as the Thanksgiving holiday settles in but, for many, including those in our own backyard, that Thanksgiving meal and other meals before and after the holiday could be a challenge to put on the table as lack of consistent access to fresh foods and produce exacerbates food insecurity for families in the region.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, an estimated 37 million Americans live in what’s characterized as a food desert, defined as an area where a grocery store is not available with one mile of urban communities or ten miles in rural areas. Coupled with transportation challenges, it can be hard for families to have access to nutritious foods on a regular basis.

It’s why Congressman Donald McEachin (D, VA-04) and three other representatives co-introduced the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, HFAAA, a bipartisan piece of legislation that seeks to increase access to fresh produce available in low-income and rural areas of his district, comprised of much of Southside Virginia, and across America.

In an interview, McEachin explained that the issue of food deserts and food insecurity was one of the main topics of discussion brought up to him during his campaign across the Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District.

“Folks were very concerned about the length of time and the distance they had to drive to get to a good grocery store,” the congressman said. “The idea of addressing this issue was born on the campaign trail and the suggestion of actual constituents.”

This bill, which was co-introduced by McEachin, Ryan Costello (PA-06), Dwight Evans (PA-02), and Tim Ryan (OH-13), would create a system of tax credits and grants for businesses and nonprofits who serve low-income and low-access urban and rural areas.

According to the bill’s summary, “Food providers who service low access communities could submit applications to the Treasury Department for certification as a ‘Special Access Food Provider (SAFP).’ Through that designation, those providers would receive specific tax credits or grants for serving those food deserts in a variety of ways, such as a one-time 15-percent tax credit for companies that build new stores in food deserts, temporary access merchants, such as farmers markets, would be eligible for grants totaling ten percent of their annual operating costs, and certified food banks that build new permanent structures in food deserts would be eligible for a one-time grant for 15-percent of their construction costs.

In data provided by the USDA, looking specifically at the Fourth Congressional District, comprised of the Tri-Cities, Dinwiddie, Prince George, the Richmond-Metro area, save Hanover, Chesterfield, Southampton, Sussex, Suffolk, and Chesapeake, over 188,000 Virginians live in USDA-defined food deserts. That figure represents just over two percent of the Commonwealth’s 2010 Census data, which estimated Virginia’s population at just over 8 million people.

Drilling the numbers down further, in Dinwiddie, USDA data shows over 5,700 live in a food desert, over 20 percent of the county’s population. The numbers were similar in Prince George as roughly 8,500 people live in food deserts, comprising of roughly 24 percent of the county’s 2010 Census population estimation.

While those numbers may suggest that food deserts and food insecurities are a rural problem, those living in urban centers are also prone to lacking access to fresh and nutritious foods.

Using that same USDA data, over 15,750 people in neighboring Petersburg are in a USDA-defined food desert, over 48 percent of the city’s 2010 Census population total.

Richmond, the Commonwealth’s state capital, saw similar, but not as steep numbers as an estimated 60,500 people live in a food desert, nearly 30 percent of the city’s 204,000-resident population, as of the most recent Census data.

“This absolutely affects urban areas, but it also affects the rural southside portion of our district,” McEachin said. “This is an important issue and I am happy that we have been able to cobble together a bipartisan and bicameral group of folks to address this issue.”

Speaking to the tax credits and grants laid out in the HFAAA, McEachin said he hopes those can serve as catalyst and “tool that various localities can use through their departments of economic development to encourage businesses to come into their districts,” such as grocery store retailers.

While the bill mentions the construction of new grocery stores and permanent food banks as those projects that could take advantage of the tax credits and grants laid out within the HFAAA, McEachin said existing food banks and farmers markets could also apply for those benefits.

“If they choose to, they would be able to take advantage of this and expand their operations,” he said. “It will also allow new organizations to form, so this speaks to both existing entities and the potential for new entities.”

Earlier this year, Perdue Farms made a large donation to the Prince George Food Pantry, providing boxes of fresh chicken, along with refrigeration equipment in an effort to help expand the pantry’s ability to feed those in need in Prince George County, where nearly a quarter of the population lives in a food desert.

At that event, FeedMore, a regional nonprofit that provides comprehensive hunger programs to help provide food to those living across Central and Southern Virginia, and their chief development officer Tim McDermott spoke to the role that rural pantries and community farmers markets, like in Prince George and in the Town of McKenney in Dinwiddie, play in feeding the region’s most vulnerable residents.

“The challenge in the rural areas is that people are more spread out so we really have to rely on larger food pantries that can really reach a lot of people,” he said. “There is no question that with the dispersion of the population and often times the lack of ready access to nutritious food is significant in rural areas.”

While not intimately involved with the creation of the bill, McEachin said groups like FeedMore and others whose mission is to help feed Virginians agreed with the idea of reducing and eliminating food deserts and promoting food security in the Commonwealth.

“They have certainly seconded the notion that we learned on the campaign trail that we have to address food insecurity and food deserts,” he said. “To that extent, I believe they are fully on board,” adding that this bill will help to address a key area of poverty, lack of access to food.

“Poverty leads to a whole plethora of issues,” McEachin continued. “Not the least of which is having access to a good and wholesome diet. Poverty is also accompanied by transportation problems so, while the middle class may have challenges driving a mile or ten miles to get to a particular grocery store, it’s exacerbated for folks who are poor because they may not have any access to transportation to be able to get to the grocery store.”

According to McEachin, as part of the bill, the definition of a food desert was refined in the hope that those grants and tax credits “can bring those grocery stores closer to home. We are trying to essentially get these services to where people are.”

To that end, McEachin said the elderly population of the Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District, the Commonwealth, and the nation needs to be considered when having conversations about access to food.

“While they may have access to transportation, they don’t need to be driving long distances to get to grocery stores, so that is why we want to bring these services closer to home,” he said.

In August, a similar bill was introduced by U.S. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-VA).

With the legislation crossing aisles in both houses of Congress, McEachin is hopeful he and fellow lawmakers’ end goal will come to fruition thanks to this bill.

“My hope is that we won’t have any food deserts in the Fourth Congressional District,” he said. “And if we do, it is a matter of making sure that the economic development offices or whatever locality that is still affected by the problem of food deserts are in a position to use this as a tool in their economic development toolkit to bring a grocery store in or to prop up a nonprofit to provide those services.

A copy of the full House of Representatives bill and other documentation is available on Congressman McEachin’s website at http://mceachin.house.gov.

Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing
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