Planting the Seeds of Hope, Renewal with Fresh, Healthy Foods

By State Rep. Dwight Evans
We’ve all heard the saying — that if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is. 
I beg to differ.
For more than 10 years now, fresh food financing initiatives have swept across Pennsylvania and the nation, transforming lives and rejuvenating neighborhoods and regions.
I pioneered the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative 11 years ago when faced with the troubling fact that almost half a million Pennsylvanians face hunger and food insecurity issues, even though the commonwealth is a world leader in food production and processing.  
Since those efforts took root in the Keystone State in 2004, increasing access to healthy foods in underserved communities has become a nationwide undertaking whose astonishing results grow more impressive each passing day.
It was no leap of faith on my part. My unique vantage point as a lawmaker representing Northwest Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania General Assembly enabled me to see on a wider angle what groups like The Food Trust, The Reinvestment Fund, and the Urban Affairs Coalition were doing to improve health, stimulate investment, and provide family-supporting jobs.
By pooling the efforts, voilà!
In just its first six years, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative helped develop 88 supermarkets and fresh food outlets in underserved rural and urban areas throughout the state, creating or retaining 5,000 jobs in those communities. State seed money produced projects totaling $190 million.
The shared “eureka” moment has taken me to the White House, Harvard, and across the country as we saw first-hand what the wildfires of fresh food initiatives could do while combating hunger and improving access to fresh and health foods:
• Improve property values by as much as 7 percent with the restoration of grocery markets in underserved areas.
• Reduce the incidence of diet-related diseases.
• Leverage private and public capital to boost access to healthy foods in healthy food “deserts” in both rural and urban areas.
• Create quality jobs and enable food dollars to sustain neighborhoods that most need the economic activity.
The Fresh Food Financing Initiative enlists some of the top banks in the world, including JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch. The funding programs employ such wonkish terms as tax credits and loan capital.
But at the core of the initiative’s success is a belief among many good people and organizations that no one should be consigned to a life of poor health because of the neighborhood they live in.
Rebuilding communities starts when people have access to healthy food choices. When we invest in gardens, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, supermarkets, and organic farms, we are investing in people. Children are healthier and learn better. Diabetes and other diseases decrease in adults. And, most importantly, communities can thrive.
Fresh food financing initiatives make sense from a policy standpoint. They make sense from an economic standpoint.
Pennsylvania showed what can be done with a shared vision, and the idea caught fire.
 After 11 years of successes, the world sees that ideas do matter. 
Dwight Evans is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. (Twitter: @RepDwightEvans)
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Healthy Food Access Portal.