Federal farm bill to alleviate food deserts

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WASHINGTON -- The farm bill signed into law Friday includes a $125 million initiative based on a program that started in Pennsylvania.

The bill authorizes funding for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to provide start-up grants and affordable loan financing for food retailers, farmers markets and cooperatives that sell and deliver healthy goods to "food deserts" -- areas underserved by grocery stores.

But while the bill improves access to nutritious food, it also cuts the food stamp program that 15 percent of Americans rely on to eat.

"HFFI is one of the bright spots in an otherwise not very bright farm bill," said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh group that fights hunger and poverty. "It will certainly help in the development and expansion of foods that provide food in what otherwise would be food deserts, and that's a good thing, but whether that makes up for [food stamp cuts] is another story."

In signing the bill Friday at Michigan State University, President Barack Obama said the wide-ranging bill "multitasks" by helping boost jobs, innovation, research and conservation. "It's like a Swiss Army knife," he joked.

It's a double-edged one if you're a food stamp recipient living in a food desert.

"There is the investment of money into getting stores open but at the same time they're cutting the funding to help the folks actually buy the groceries that we now have available," said Cheryl Hall Russell, CEO of Hill House, an economic development and social services agency in the Hill District.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative was introduced by Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, and shepherded through Congress by Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.

The program is based on a similar state one administered by the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund, which distributed $75 million in loans and $12 million in grants between 2004 and 2010, including money that helped Ms. Hall Russell's organization bring a Shop 'n Save to the Hill District. State funding ran out and the Reinvestment Fund is no longer awarding grants but continues to provide financing for new projects as borrowers repay loans.

Mr. Obama adopted the format two years ago, when he used executive authority to order grant- and loan-making agencies to give priority to healthy food initiatives when they make awards under existing programs.

Now, under the new farm bill signed Friday, there is a dedicated stream of targeted funding, and it includes more money -- $125 million over five years.

Supporters say that will improve access to nutritious foods, decrease obesity and create jobs.

"By providing healthier food retail operations in urban and rural areas, we can ensure Pennsylvanians have the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives and save ... health care costs," Ms. Schwartz said.

The program targets investments in "food deserts," as defined by the Food Abundance Index created by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.

Just Harvest, a local group working to eliminate hunger and poverty, used the index to release a report last year that highlighted access problems in the region. The nearest source of groceries for Manchester residents, for example, is 1.4 miles away -- uphill. The Monongahela River flows between Clairton and the nearest Giant Eagle.

"We haven't solved the problem in the state of Pennsylvania. There are still areas that are underserved, and this gives us another financial tool," said Patricia Smith, senior policy adviser to the Reinvestment Fund.

"We think it's an important way to help economically distressed communities. Supermarkets are great anchors because they attract other businesses and they create employment," she said.

"Second, when you have a supermarket in a community, it signals to other investors that this community is turning around."

The Associated Press contributed.

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