Last week, the SC Food Policy Council convened for its first meeting to discuss creating equitable access to healthy food across the state. During the discussion, Council members deliberated on several emerging issues hindering food access:

Lack of Community/Economic Development in Underserved Areas
Grocery stores serve as economic anchors in a community, creating economic growth and job opportunities. According to Policy Link, neighborhood housing values within a quarter to half mile of the new supermarket increased by 4% – 7%; grocery stores attract other businesses and complementary services; and each new supermarket creates 100-200 new jobs, with 24 jobs created for every 10,000 square feet of retail space. Utilizing The Reinvestment Fund’s research as a formula, communities with low supermarket access in South Carolina can support 529,000 square feet of grocery retail space, which equates to 1,270 new jobs in the state.

Lack of Transportation
1.4 million South Carolinians live more than a half mile from a grocery store, representing 30% of the state’s population; a staggering 4 million low-income residents live more than a mile from a grocery store. For these residents, transportation, either personal or public, are a necessity to not only access healthy foods, but to provide the opportunity for everyday grocery shopping. To provide equitable access to healthy food options, it is imperative that transportation, or lack thereof, be part of the discussion.

SNAP Usage at Farmers Markets
In 2006, the USDA and the SC Department of Agriculture expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to include farmers markets; however, only 47 of South Carolina’s farmers markets participate in the program, representing less than 40% of markets across the state. Allowing customers to utilize food stamps at these community markets is a win-win-win situation: it provides access to new customers; it provides food stamp recipients access to healthy food; and it improves the local economy by encouraging the consumption of locally-grown produce.

Lack of Consumer Awareness: What Is Healthy and How Do I Prepare It?
If people don’t know what is healthy and how to cook it, at the end of the day, providing access to healthy foods doesn’t matter. It is essential that consumers receive pertinent education on what to buy and how to prepare the food. Equally important is the role culture plays in food consumption and preparation, and how one’s cultural beliefs influence their eating habits.

What’s Next?
The Council divided into working groups to further discuss each of the above, and were tasked with developing a framework for recommendations to address these barriers. During subsequent meetings, these recommendations will be fleshed out with the hope of developing a comprehensive set of recommendations to present to local and state governments.

Across the Country
There are several similar initiatives across the country that have been successful. ThePennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), the signature effort launched in 2004, was a public-private partnership among the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Reinvestment Fund, The Food Trust, and Urban Affairs Coalition. Through the leadership of State Representative Dwight Evans, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania invested $30 million in seed funding for the program. The public funds have led to total project costs of $190 million. FFFI attracted 206 applications from across Pennsylvania and approved financing for 88 projects in underserved urban and rural communities. In total, more than $85 million in grants and loans were approved for eligible healthy food retail businesses, creating or saving more than 5,000 jobs and 1.67 million square feet of commercial food retail space. FFFI ended in June 2010 when all of the state funds were deployed.

The New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities (HFHC) Fund has thus far provided $6.24 million ($4.86 million in loans and $1.38 million in grants) to eight healthy food retail projects (6 traditional grocery stores, 1 mobile market, and 1 regional farmers’ market) aimed at improving access to nutritious food for approximately 24,000 people in underserved communities in New York State. The eight projects receiving HFHC funding so far are spread across New York towns and cities, including Mount Vernon, Highland Falls, Conklin, Buffalo, Red Creek, Binghamton and in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, which also received tax incentives through the FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) Program. The Fund’s investments have so far supported 67,500 square feet of new, improved or preserved food retail space and created or preserved more than 200 FTE jobs and over 100 construction jobs.

The SC Food Access Task Force, which consists of over 45 members from South Carolina health, policy, non-profit, and governmental agencies, will provide a set of recommendations to address the barriers to equitable food access and set forth an implementation plan for a statewide, state sponsored Healthy Food Finance Initiative (HFFI). For more information, please visit www.scfoodaccess.com or contact Anna Hamilton at anna@sccommunityloanfund.org.