Revitalizing Communities with Healthy Food Access

By The Food Trust, Reinvestment Fund and PolicyLink

Over 29 million Americans lack access to healthy food. What’s more, these communities miss out on the economic opportunities healthy food investment can bring. PolicyLink, The Food Trust, and The Reinvestment Fund joined forces in 2009 to create a comprehensive federal response to address inequitable access to healthy food in rural and urban areas across the United States.  In 2011, the White House launched the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a viable, effective, and economically sustainable solution for addressing the lack of access to fresh foods in underserved communities.  

Now in its fifth year of operation, HFFI is increasing healthy food options in low-income communities and communities of color and catalyzing economic development.  HFFI has created over 3,000 jobs and supported over 200 projects in over 30 different states across the country.  The program supports a variety of projects including grocery stores, farmers markets, food hubs, mobile markets, and many more.  Each of these projects brings with it new jobs, opportunities for entrepreneurship, increases in tax revenues for local government, and increases in surrounding home values. 

Despite the success of HFFI and other state and city initiatives, questions intermittently arise as to whether investment in improving healthy food retail access is worthwhile.  These doubts stem from the occasional research study that seeks to measure the impact of these programs by looking to one variable - either changes in shopping habits, consumption of fruits and vegetables, or obesity changes.  Unfortunately, this line of inquiry, with a lens focused only on one measurement, misses the big picture about what it truly means to have a healthy community – a community where access goes hand in hand with economic opportunity and revitalization.

Over the past 20 years – with over 300 studies completed – research has found that access to nutritious food is one of several factors that contribute to better eating habits and positive health outcomes, including decreased risk for obesity and diet-related diseases. The research also demonstrates that bridging the gap between improved accessibility to better eating habits takes time and needs complementary measures, including community-based nutrition education and physical activity programs. 

On a similar note, research and projects on the ground demonstrate the economic benefits of healthy food retail.  A new grocery brings with it steady jobs, an increase in tax revenues, and serves as an anchor institution bringing with it additional services like banks, pharmacies and restaurants. It is estimated that 24 new jobs are created for every 10,000 square feet of retail grocery space.

The Healthy Food Access Portal highlights many HFFI-supported food projects demonstrating these positive health and economic impacts in underserved communities across the country. One example of a grocery store that uses an innovative, multi-faceted approach to community health is Nojaim Brothers Supermarket in Syracuse, N.Y. Collaborating with local universities, hospitals, and health departments, Nojaim’s owner  is incentivizing shoppers to use their in-store reward points for healthy purchasing and community health services.  These types of projects are making a difference.  Nationwide, the number of people living without easy access to grocery stores has been reduced significantly.   This alone is cause for celebration and continued investment. 

When evaluating the success of projects and policies we should be looking at the bigger picture – at the health and economic impacts of these policies and projects.  We should be collecting and listening to the stories of change on the ground.  Stores opening in urban and rural areas across the country represent more than just access and health, they are about economic revitalization, jobs, increased revenue, and community.