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Real Progress, 30 Years in the Making

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I attended an event yesterday that was more than 30 years in the making.

As I looked around the White House Office of Urban Affairs listening tour meeting at a packed Philadelphia warehouse space and saw low-income residents and local leaders mingling with some of our nation's most powerful people (including two cabinet secretaries!), I thought back on where the fight for equitable access to healthy food started for me.

It was 1979 and I was recently out of UC-Berkeley Law School and working for the public-interest law firm Public Advocates when a group of residents of a low-income, African-American neighborhood in San Francisco approached me to see if I could help stop their community's one and only supermarket from leaving. In my hometown of St. Louis, I had seen first-hand the neglect and despair that festered after supermarkets left poor communities there.

No one had ever tried before to find a legal theory that would provide communities access to healthy food, so we were on uncharted legal ground. Using interviews with more than 150 residents of local communities threatened by a lack of food access, we eventually filed an administrative petition with then-Gov. Jerry Brown seeking redress to the problem of the exodus of supermarkets from low-income communities. The Governor was remarkably responsive: appointing a commission that held hearings throughout the state. Because of the determination of those residents, California began a slow move toward improving healthy food access for millions of our neighbors; the petition sparked farmers' markets, cooperative buying clubs, a few cooperative markets -- but, unfortunately, not one supermarket.

In the years since, equitable food access has been mostly relegated to a local issue, with fights cropping up sporadically in neighborhoods as local supermarkets threaten to leave. We had seen some successes -- like San Diego's Market Creek Plaza or the Pathmark in Harlem -- but the victories had been hard to come by. That is, until about five years ago, when Pennsylvania's Gov. Ed Rendell began to listen to the ideas and innovation of his constituents and the leadership of The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund. Out of that collaboration came the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a remarkable program that has helped open dozens of markets and seed more than 3,700 jobs in under-served communities.

Now, through the tireless efforts of residents and advocates, the White House Office of Urban Affairs has shown real interest in learning about this proven program, hopefully to take the ideas and solutions to the national scale. White House leaders want to lift up the program and hear how it is impacting real people. For the first time, I can see that the fight for equitable food access is winnable.
I cannot stress enough how important and exciting it is to have a White House willing to listen to new and innovative ideas. This administration -- in virtually every office and agency -- seems to recognize that all Americans deserve to live in a community of opportunity.

But that does not mean progress will happen on its own. Far from it. The most important attribute the equity movement has going for it is our tenacity. Thirty years ago, when those residents came into my office to ask for help in improving their community, I knew it would be a long, hard fight. But sitting in Philadelphia this week, I felt emboldened to keep fighting, to keep pushing, because success is always within our grasp.

We must demand equity now.

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