As our minds turn to food in preparation for Thanksgiving, there continue to be too many North Carolinians who struggle to bring food to the table each and every day. For these families, a lack of resources represents the greatest challenge in ensuring nutritious meals are available but another factor is access and proximity to stores that sell food.
North Carolina’s food deserts, or areas where access to food is made difficult by distance to store locations, can be found in both urban and rural settings. They affect more than 1.5 million North Carolinians and nearly 350 neighborhoods (or census tracts). For people living in a food desert, there is an association with poorer health outcomes such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as an increased likelihood to having difficulty putting food on the table.
Like community-eligibility that targets students in schools, there are effective place-based initiatives that can address hunger in North Carolina’s communities by reducing the number of food deserts. Some initiatives have already been piloted here in NC, others have been established in other states and still others are being developed by local community leaders in North Carolina right now.
- Provide convenience store owners with loans to support equipment and food purchases that increase access to healthy food options. Pitt County health department has had success in supporting convenience stores as they provide greater food options and business owners have found this expansion of their inventory to be profitable.
- Establish a Healthy Food Financing Fund at the state level to provide favorable loan terms or grants to businesses committed to locating in food deserts and actively serving low-income residents. Already the federal government has provided funding for private loans that support financing projects that locate food outlets in food deserts and North Carolina’s State Employee’s Credit Union has benefited. In other states, like Pennsylvania, where state level funds have been established, outcomes have extended beyond addressing hunger. Eighty-eight new or improved grocery stores have been located in underserved communities, impacting 400,000 residents. but In addition, 5,000 jobs have been created or retained and an additional $540,000 in local tax revenue was generated from a single store in Philadelphia.
- Reduce barriers to local grassroots efforts to form food cooperatives in food deserts in the state. Already in Greensboro and Raleigh neighborhood leaders are pursuing the establishment of grocery stores cooperatively owned to serve their communities that currently lack healthy food options. But as was presented at the recent state House legislative Committee on Food Desert Zones, there are barriers to establishing cooperatives that could be addressed through state policy so that more communities could come together to address hunger and food access.
Policies can support our state’s work to ensure that no child goes hungry and no family struggles to put food on the table. Above are just a few ideas that should be on the table in 2015 as policymakers work to address the challenges that North Carolinians face in accessing nutritious meals. The benefits to those families extend into the community and strengthen our economy’s capacity for job creation and growth.