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Blackwell and Larkin: Growing American Jobs While Slimming Down Obesity

Two of America’s 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 you’d 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 — for which the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury have announced $45 million in available funds — 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 don’t 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.

It’s 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.

That’s what makes HFFI so exciting for grocers looking to open up in underserved communities.

When combined with significant capital from the grocer, the program’s 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 it’s the community residents that will benefit the most.

Grocery stores offer stable, sustainable, local jobs for a broad range of employees. Because so many grocery store employees come from the neighborhood, their wages can have dramatic multiplier effects throughout the community. Plus, supermarkets are neighborhood anchors, drawing in foot and vehicle traffic that spreads to other nearby businesses.

The benefits aren’t just economic. Studies show that having easier access to healthy food makes it more likely you’ll have a healthier diet. One study found that for every additional grocery store in a census tract, fruit and vegetable consumption among blacks went up 32 percent.

We’re already seeing this idea work on the ground in Pennsylvania. Since that program started in 2004, a $30 million state investment has helped develop 88 new or expanded fresh food outlets, leveraged $190 million in total project costs and created or saved more than 5,000 jobs. And, more than 400,000 people now have access to healthy food who didn’t before. Similar programs are in various stages of completion in Illinois, California, New Jersey, Louisiana and New York.

Congress should build on the experience and lessons learned from these state efforts. It’s time to invest in a national solution to this national problem. Ensuring easy access to healthy food is an investment that pays off in jobs today and healthy families tomorrow. Funding the Healthy Food Financing Initiative would be a big step in that direction.

Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink. Peter Larkin is president and CEO of the National Grocers Association.

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