Two of Americaís biggest problems seem to be heading in opposite directions: Our job opportunities are shrinking while our waistlines are bulging.
But the solutions to these challenges might not be as unrelated as youíd think at first glance.
An innovative new idea being debated in Washington, and already succeeding in many states, is showing that there may be a way to help fix both problems at once. The answer: Build more grocery stores and other fresh food retail outlets.
The federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative ó for which the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury have announced $45 million in available funds ó uses federal loan and grant programs to leverage private capital and help grocers and farmers markets open new locations in underserved neighborhoods, providing access to healthy foods and much-needed jobs.
Other innovative approaches are also eligible to get healthy food to communities struggling without any available options. President Barack Obama has proposed $330 million for HFFI in his 2012 budget.
The power of this type of public-private partnership was recently highlighted when the U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp., a subsidiary of U.S. Bank, pledged its own commitment to HFFI, announcing that a substantial portion of its New Markets Tax Credit investments will be allocated for fresh food projects in high-need areas.
The benefits would be enormous, especially in low-income communities that have gone for decades without a nearby grocery store to buy important staples such as fruits and vegetables. Right now, more than 23 million Americans donít have a nearby store that sells nutritious food.
Disadvantaged communities face this problem most acutely. Lack of access to nutritious foods is a major problem in many of these communities, while in poor rural areas, there often are no nearby food options at all.
Itís no surprise that these same communities also have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes. The effect of the lack of healthy options can literally be measured in the months and years lost to preventable, chronic diseases caused by poor diet.
Grocers that have tried to open up shop in underserved communities run into logistical and financial challenges. The small profit margins in the grocery business mean that the risk is high for grocers looking to open new stores. And in urban areas with high land costs, the risk is even higher.
Studies in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and New Orleans have all found that financing is a major obstacle to grocers opening new stores, especially during these tough economic times.
Thatís what makes HFFI so exciting for grocers looking to open up in underserved communities.
When combined with significant capital from the grocer, the programís grants and loans provide the boost the company needs to get over the hump and bring down the risk enough to make the business side work long term. The public-private partnership at the heart of this effort provides grocers with the one-time loans and grants they need to open stores and helps create a long-term, sustainable economic hub for the community.
But itís the community residents that will benefit the most.