Food for Thought

Congress got it right this time!

Last week, both houses voted across party lines for a program that stands to make a huge difference in the health of people across the country. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees voted to include the creation of a Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) in their farm bill mark-ups. Their actions--coming after thousands of calls, emails, and letters from constituents demanding access to healthy food--made it clear that Congress is listening. They hear and understand that HFFI makes it possible to provide access to healthy foods in communities that have long gone without.

More than 29 million people live more than a mile from a supermarket. They live in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas that offer little choice but to rely on fast food outlets, liquor stores, and convenience markets to shop for food. By its action on HFFI, Congress acknowledges that HFFI is a viable, effective, and economically sustainable solution to the problem of limited access to healthy foods.

As it increases access, HFFI simultaneously improves the health of families and children, creates jobs, and stimulates local economic development in low-income communities. We should commend Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the House amendment's author, and many other members of Congress for their efforts. After hearing from the public that access is a severe problem in many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, these members committed themselves to fixing it. Now the advocates who worked to include HFFI must help Congress understand how to achieve equity throughout the food system.

The United States food industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. U.S. consumers spend approximately $1 trillion annually on food, or nearly 10 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The industry employs over 16.5 million people. These figures include the many parts of the food system--farming and farm equipment, chemicals used in farming, food transport, and wholesalers and retailers. Yet despite its size and scope, this behemoth also feeds the inequitable health impacts present in the U.S. today: people in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have trouble accessing healthy food and miss out on the jobs associated with food retail.

Despite these inequities, many of these communities are using the food system to revitalize neighborhoods and stabilize and increase property values, create living wage jobs, promote small business development, and improve health. HFFI, which has distributed over $477 million in grants and tax credits across the country, has helped support grocery stores that prioritize local hiring and support work force training and development. Practitioners in community clinics can now walk their patients to farmers' markets next door to show them the healthy foods they prescribe. Urban farms are establishing co-ops where farmers earn a living wage, become co-owners, and share in the profits.

There's still a long way to go to ensure that programs such as HFFI stay in both farm bills. We must urge the Senate to keep HFFI intact as it considers other amendments. Additionally, both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill include unacceptable cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We must lift up these great examples of how HFFI is making a difference, share them widely through platforms like the Healthy Food Access Portal, and encourage more efforts to increase equity throughout our food system.

Yes, we have a lot more to do. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge Congress for its efforts on behalf of HFFI, significant actions that have potential to provide healthy food access and economic development to communities sorely in need of both. HFFI is a powerful tool for change and Congress has taken important steps towards institutionalizing that change. An equitable society ensures that all communities are included in our food system, and keeping HFFI in the farm bill is an equitable win for all.