News: CJ Exclusives

Pilot program set to address ‘food deserts’

Retailers could apply for grants to buy refrigeration units, though research shows programs have little effect on eating behavior

North Carolina is initiating an effort to provide healthier food in areas of the state where people may have trouble finding fresh produce, though a federal study of similar efforts in other locations have found they had a “negligible” effect on the amount of produce sold in areas called “food deserts.”

During the 2016 short session of the General Assembly, lawmakers set aside $250,000 for a Healthy Food Small Retailer Program to increase access to fresher food.

“A food desert is an area where there is no access to a full-service grocery store within one mile in an urban area and 10 miles in a rural area, said Morgan Whittman Gramann, managing director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health.

“Based on the [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] recent data, there are 349 food deserts across 80 counties in North Carolina, affecting 1.5 million North Carolina residents,” Gramann said.

The program will be administered by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The money primarily will pay to install commercial grade refrigerators for fresh produce at convenience stores or similar retailers.

Brian Long, a spokesman for the department, said that the agency is still working on some of the details of the new program and hopes to be in the position to accept grant proposals from small retailers by late fall.

“I think what we would hope to do is be able to have the grants dispersed so the retailers could purchase the refrigeration equipment and have it in place to coincide with next year’s growing season,” Long said.

The legislation authorizing the program limits a single retailer to a maximum $25,000 grant. But both Long and Gramann say they believe retailers will be able to find equipment for less than $25,000, allowing the overall allotment to be spread to more retailers.

Retailers also must agree to accept payments from Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (aka Food Stamps) and the Women, Infants and Children program to be eligible for a grant for refrigeration.

The law also requires the department to report back to a legislative oversight committee by Oct. 1, 2017.

Gramann hopes that if the program, which they dub the “Healthy Corner Store Initiative,” is successful, lawmakers will increase its funding.

“Our hope is that the General Assembly will [conclude] that this program works and that it’s needed, and that they’ll include $1 million in recurring funding,” Gramann said. “We really do think that this is a model that is going to work.”

Gramann said the North Carolina program is modeled after program in the Philadelphia area initiated by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The purpose of the program is to provide access to healthy food in an effort to combat obesity.

The North Carolina effort comes after a 2014 study found that food deserts tended to be in lower income and minority neighborhoods where residents had limited transportation options, making it difficult to get to a full-service grocery store if one wasn’t nearby.

Some recent studies have questioned the effectiveness of initiatives attacking food deserts. Factors such as cultural traditions and consumer choices are a bigger contributor to unhealthy eating habits than proximity to healthy produce, they suggest.

“You can lead human beings to Whole Foods, but you can’t make them buy organic kale there,” noted a recent post at Reason magazine’s website.

The Reason report cited a USDA study of the purchasing habits of SNAP benefit recipients. “Participants with very difficult access purchased smaller amounts of perishable foods than shoppers with easy access,” the Reason report said. “However, the prices of different food groups were more important determinants of purchase decisions than was access. When price and demographic factors were accounted for, the effects of food access were negligible.”

commentary from December 2010 by John McWhorter posted on National Public Radio’s website argued that a person’s upbringing influences food choices.

“The no-supermarket paradigm discourages us from considering that human beings acquire — through childhood experience, cultural preferences, and economics — a palate,” McWhorter writes. “Someone raised on fruity drinks and fried food is as likely to prefer them permanently …  as someone raised on pita bread and hummus will eat that way forever. I was raised on a cuisine stamped by, if not centered on, the salty realm, and I alternate eternally between resisting and parsimoniously indulging that taste for grease.”

Andy Ellen, president and general counsel of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, said his organization followed the legislative study committee but has not taken a position on the program.

“We’re going to monitor this as close as possible to make sure they’re not putting [the refrigeration units] into a place where there’s competition,” Ellen said.

Ellen noted that the retail merchants are a free-market organization and that the market forces usually take care of demands.

Southeast Raleigh was considered a food desert after two grocery stores left the area, Ellen said, but two new grocers subsequently have opened there.

Ellen also cited plans for a grocery store to move into downtown Raleigh now that there are many new residences downtown. “You have to have enough rooftops and purchasers to make that work,” Ellen said.

Gramann noted that a handful of communities in North Carolina had received federal grants to implement programs in food deserts. In a video on the alliance’s web page, a storeowner discussing the program said it is good for retailers because produce has a high profit margin, even higher than soft drinks.

“A lot of these corner store owners [are] mom-and-pop” operations, Gramann said, adding that a lack of refrigeration equipment or contact with distributors may pose a “barrier to entry” for selling fresh produce. She said the state agriculture office would have the expertise to help the store owners display the merchandise in parts of the store with more traffic so that customers would be aware that fresh produce is available.