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Advocates Hope to Address Virginia Food Deserts with New Fund

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Along the intersection of Nine-Mile Road and 25th Street in Richmond’s East End, a group of health advocates is leading a walking tour.

As sirens and cars whiz by, the tour group of about 30 comes to a halt in a grassy lot beside a grocery store under construction.

Down the street, there’s a Dollar store, a church, a prepaid phone service provider and a laundromat. Down the street in the other direction, there are homes.

The grocery store being built is scheduled to open later this year. In the mean time, the area is a food desert, and the advocates leading the tour are trying to raise awareness about healthy food access.

“Where we're standing right now, within a 1mile radius, there are over 20,000 people -including 7,000 children that live in low-income Census tracks that currently do not have access to a supermarket,” says Richmond resident and a volunteer with the American Heart Association, Allie Atkeson.

She says peoples’ proximity to, or distance from a grocery store can impact their lives.

“It’s very difficult to access fresh fruits and vegetables without a full-service grocery store. We also know that families are more likely to experience diet-related disease when there’s a lack of healthy, affordable, fresh food,” said Atkeson.

Atkeson and the American Heart Association are part of a larger coalition urging Virginia legislators to create and fund a Grocery Investment Program this year.

According to a grant-sponsored report from the Pennsylvania-based non-profit The Food Trust, more than 1.7 million Virginians live in lower income communities with limited supermarket access.

These underserved communities are concentrated in rural southern areas as well as in localities like Richmond, Hampton and Lynchburg.

The proposed Grocery Investment Fund would provide grants and low interest loans to help launch new grocery stores and other food retailers in those locations.

Robin Gahan is director of government relations in Virginia with the American Heart Association. She says even when conditions are ideal, it’s hard to get started and succeed in the grocery store business.

For the last two years, Forbes has cited data from the financial information company Sageworks that suggests grocery stores are among the United States’ least profitable industries.

Gahan says the help that would come from the proposed Grocery Investment Fund would incentivize developers and operators to start-up in neighborhoods where they’re needed and not just for food. “For the American Heart Association, our stake in this is because of the public health impact that could be had with preventing heart disease and giving people access to healthier nutrition, but at the end of the day, a lot of this model, a major impact is economic development and community revitalization,” said Gahan.

Earlier this month, former First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe announced support for the measure alongside a bi-partisan group of legislators at the Capitol. “We know the best anti-hunger program that there is, is a good-paying job and we are excited about the potential this fund brings to leverage new private investments in struggling neighborhoods to grow the economy and offer reliable employment opportunities,” said McAuliffe to a packed room.

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe included more than $7 million dollars in his final two-year budget to start the Virginia Grocery Investment fund. The budget - and the accompanying bills to create the program within the state code - must undergo legislative debate before any investments can be made.