Food deserts continue to plague South Carolina’s low-income communities. According to the USDA, there are 1,003,861 low-income individuals statewide that live more than one mile from a grocery store; this represents nearly one-quarter of the state’s population. Residents living in food deserts face unprecedented challenges regarding financial self-sustainability, positive health, and personal diet.

Food deserts are also an economic concern. Not only are these areas void of healthy food options, but they do not benefit from the economic development opportunities that come from having a local grocery store. Residents of food deserts spend approximately $311 million annually on groceries outside of their local community, which is known as grocery store leakage. These markets can support 529,000 square feet of grocery retail, which directly translates into jobs, transportation cost savings, citizen engagement, economic development, an increased tax base, and most importantly, improved access to healthy food.

How can we provide for these one million residents and rid the state of food deserts? By supporting businesses that provide access to healthy, affordable food. Earlier this month, Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 2014, better known as the Farm Bill. For the first time, Congress officially established a national Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI)within the US Department of Agriculture, which will support projects that increase access to healthy, affordable food in communities that currently lack these options. Prior to its inclusion in the Farm Bill, healthy food financing has been allocated on a limited basis since 2011.

The establishment of HFFI is a significant milestone for healthy food advocates, particularly the SC Food Access Task Force. The Task Force consists of over 45 members from health, policy, non-profit, and governmental agencies working to provide a set of public policy recommendations to address the barriers to equitable food access, one of which is a statewide, state sponsored HFFI. A South Carolina HFFI will provide predevelopment, acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, equipment, leasehold improvement, and working capital loans, grants, and tax incentives to food producers, retail operators and distributors serving food deserts.

The Task Force is led by the South Carolina Community Loan Fund (CLF), a statewide community development financial institution with experience dispersing HFFI funds. In 2011, CLF received and successfully deployed a $500,000 HFFI award which created two healthy food retail outlets, one in Beaufort and the second in Spartanburg.

The inclusion of HFFI in the Farm Bill and its $125 million allocation will have a significant impact on South Carolina’s underserved communities, and the Task Force views it as an opportunity for collaboration on a statewide level. An opportunity to leverage federal funds with state and local contributions. An opportunity to engage community partners and create innovative solutions to food access issues. It is an opportunity to rid our state of food deserts and provide access to healthy, affordable food to the one million South Carolinians who currently lack options.

Learn how you can be part of the solution at www.scfoodaccess.com.