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Lack of Grocery Store Access is a Growing Concern for Mississippi

by Elizabeth W. on Friday, February 7, 2014

In today’s hustle and bustle of instantaneousness, the last thing many of us want to do, and even loathe to do, is shop for weekly or daily groceries.  We have all been guilty of not wanting to fight the crowds, the lines, the wobbly buggy and even a manager or employee in some instances.  But imagine if you didn’t have the choice to shop for fresh, healthy and affordable foods.  What if a big box store or small independent grocery in the city you work or the community in which you reside didn’t exist and the only access to healthy food was many miles away? 

Believe it or not. this is a real, daily challenge for many of our citizens in Mississippi.  In the Mississippi Delta alone, over seventy (70) percent of lower-income households are located at least thirty (30) miles from a grocery store or supermarket.  The bottom line is that “Mississippi has too few grocery stores in many of its communities,” as published in the report Stimulating Grocery Retail Development in Mississippi, published by The Food Trust, headquartered in Philadelphia, PA.  The resulting lack of healthy, affordable food imposes a significant toll on many of our communities and adversely impacts the health and wellbeing of children and families.

With that in mind, The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi worked with The Food Trust and grocers to start an initiative to work with local partners to develop and advocate for policies that encourage supermarket investment in underserved communities across the state.  After initial meetings with interested public officials, public health advocates, farmers and business owners, a group of public and private sector leaders were convened in accordance with the process utilized successfully by The Food Trust in Pennsylvania, New Orleans and other state and local initiatives.

Multiple organizations led by The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi (The Partnership) and the National Grocers Association convened the Mississippi Grocery Access Task Force in spring of 2012.  The task force comprised of more than 40 experts representing government, public health, grocery retail, and civic, community, and economic development organizations examined the barriers to supermarket and fresh food retail development in lower-income areas and issued a set of local and state level policy recommendations to address the barriers.One such recommendation, called upon the state to create a statewide, flexible financing program, known as Healthy Food Financing, to attract new and expand existing grocery stores in areas of greatest need in an effort to improve health and create jobs in underserved communities.  In addition, the task force recommended for Mississippi to leverage seed capital from the state with additional public and private investment.  This public-private partnership has been proven worthy of the investment, as it creates jobs, spurs economic development, and helps combat the obesity epidemic by providing access to affordable, healthy, fresh food options.

There is significant momentum in Mississippi to address the lack of grocery store access in underserved communities.  Motivated by the vast annual expenditures of treating obesity-related diseases in the state, members of the task force engaged policy makers in the process through education and outreach during forums and individual meetings.  These sessions afforded an opportunity to educate local and state policymakers on the problem while involving them in the solution to expand access to healthy food retailers in underserved communities in Mississippi.

Throughout the education process, advocates successfully cultivated a champion on the legislative level to sponsor, defend and encourage support for legislation to address the aforementioned barrier to access to healthy food retail outlets.  On the heels of the work of the Grocery Access Task Force, the Mississippi House of Representatives, led by Representative Toby Barker, introduced MS House Bill 798, the Healthy Food Retail Act (HFRA), to create a grant and loan program to increase access to fresh and healthy food in underserved communities.  The act passed in the House by a wide margin (114-4) and was approved by the Senate (52-0).  Although the bill did not make it out of conference, there was incredible bipartisan support, signifying a growing interest and commitment to economic development in communities underserved by grocery stores and other healthy food retail, along with the creation of expanded opportunities for American farmers.

Capitalizing on the work of the task force, Representative Barker managed to merge the business aspects of the HFRA with public health by emphasizing the benefits of their co-existence - to promote positive health outcomes while creating jobs and stimulating economic development.

This year, there is legislation once again sponsored by Senator Willie Simmons (Senate Bill  2799) and Representative Toby Barker (House Bill 1328).  The meat of each bill is very similar with only the funding mechanisms differing and are making their initial way through the legislative process.

In late 2013, The Partnership was awarded a grant through the new Voices for Healthy Kids Initiative (Voices).  The Voices Initiative is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the American Heart Association.  The Partnership and its partners has begun an extensive educational campaign across the state focusing on HFFI through this grant.  The campaign will include grassroots education speaking engagements, media, social media and other elements throughout the spring.

If you would like someone to come speak to your organization or group about HFFI, please contact Langston Moore at langston.moore@healthy-miss.org.

Written by Langston Moore                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi

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