02/21/2012 05:58 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

Public-private Partnership in California Tackles Obesity, Hunger Epidemics

Rebecca Friendly, Special Assistant for CAP CA, contributed to this piece.

At all levels of government there has been a serious push for increasing access to food among low income households and fostering more nutritious eating habits in communities and schools.

Last July, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America secured pledges from Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and several other stores to open or expand stores in food deserts, bringing healthy affordable food to approximately 10 million people over the course of five years.

That same month the First Lady also announced the California FreshWorks Fund, a public-private partnership loan fund with $264 million available to support grocery stores and other healthy food retailers in low-income, underserved communities in California. The California Endowment and a team of partners that include banks, grocers, health care providers and nonprofits lead this initiative. Modeled after a successful program in Pennsylvania, this loan fund provides grants to healthy food retailers willing to locate stores in food deserts, areas lacking access to fresh, healthy food.

On Feb. 1, the First Lady spoke at a community event in Los Angeles to celebrate the progress that the California FreshWorks Fund has made in bringing affordable and healthy food to neighborhoods around the city. As one of its initial projects, the California FreshWorks Fund committed more than $20 million in loan funding to Southern California grocer Northgate Gonzalez Markets for its first three projects: a San Diego location as well as stores in Inglewood and South Los Angeles. The President and CEO of the California Endowment, Robert K. Ross, MD, also spoke at this event and enthusiastically stated, "we all have a shared interest in ensuring our neighborhoods, grocery stores and school cafeterias contribute positively to the health of our communities. Today's announcement marks the beginning of what we hope will be a robust effort to expand access to nutritious food for all Californians!"

These commitments are a step in the right direction in the effort to combat the country's obesity and hunger epidemics. Approximately one in four children in the U.S. live in a household that experiences hunger. Additionally, around 30 percent of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese and among African Americans and Latinos the number soars to an estimated 40 percent.

Although hunger and obesity are oftentimes viewed as two distinct problems, they are deeply interconnected. Hunger and food insecurity are key contributors to obesity as low-income Americans are forced to rely upon high calorie, low nutrition foods to quell hunger pangs. Notably, studies have consistently demonstrated the lack of supermarkets and other stores selling healthy, affordable food in low-income communities as compared to wealthier ones. Adults in California neighborhoods with low access to healthy food are 20 percent more likely to be obese than those in higher-access neighborhoods, increasing their risk of developing chronic diseases. The California Fresh Works Fund website features a very useful interactive map that displays "Grocery Gap" statistics for various counties throughout the U.S. and can be broken down into detailed indicators.

The California FreshWorks Fund was created to tackle these food access concerns, while also addressing additional challenges faced by communities in so-called food deserts. In addition to improving community health, drawing grocery stores into food deserts also creates opportunities for economic development. Grocery stores create jobs (an estimated 49 to 120 new jobs per store), attract other small businesses to the area, and increase the surrounding residential real estate values.

Additional benefits include increased property values in the surrounding communities and increased income and property tax. This increased economic activity and property value help relieve pressure on state and local budgets and increase community sustainability.

California's Freshworks Fund serves as a model for an innovative public-private partnership loan fund with the potential to increase access to healthy and affordable food throughout the state. This new program is proving itself as a vital component in California's fight against hunger and obesity, and as an important force in strengthening the economies of affected communities.