March 27, 2014
Guest Blog – Cross posted from the White House Rural Council Blog
Editor’s note: The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition played a lead role in helping to organize a recent White House meeting that brought together government agencies, spokespeople for innovative projects from around the country that involved both healthy food access and local and regional food system development, and four NGOs that are working together to pursue policy advances on the convergence of hunger, healthy food access, and local food system development. The following is an account of the meeting by the top rural staff person at the White House.
Recently, representatives from the White House Domestic Policy Council, the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of the Treasury joined representatives from various community projects from around the country to discuss how to increase healthy food access to communities in need. The event included representatives from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Food Research and Action Center, Policy Link, and the Fair Food Network.
Participants shared their stories of success, and what we can do to encourage more healthy foods in these communities. For example:
Mary Donnell, the Executive Director of Green City Growers Cooperative, spoke about her urban greenhouse project in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. After its inception in 2012, Green City Growers has become the largest food production greenhouse in a core urban area in the United States. The cooperative manages over three acres of urban space and employs twenty-five people from the community. It produces over three million heads of lettuce annually, which is then distributed to Cleveland’s most distressed neighborhoods. The organization creates jobs in Cleveland while providing nutritious food to food deserts across the city, one of this Administration’s key goals.
Gray Harris, the director of the Sustainable Agriculture Programs at CEI, shared her organization’s story as a Community Development Financial Institution in rural Maine. As a CDFI, CEI invests in community based projects contributing to local economies. CEI’s specific expertise is in strengthening the local food supply chain to increase healthy food access across New England. CEI has invested in nearly 300 food system projects, and it maintains a current active $6.2 million loan portfolio for food system investments. These investments help farms in Maine to stay in production, despite recent stressors on farmers.
One last story that really exemplified President Obama’s commitment to increasing access was presented to the group by Todd Chessmoore, the Superintendent of the Cody-Kilgore School District in Cody, Nebraska. Cody is a town of just 150 people, and for over a decade its residents, many of whom are lower income or elderly, had to drive over 30 miles to buy groceries. In order to eliminate this food desert, the Cody-Kilgore School District opened its own student run and operated Circle C grocery store, the town’s only dedicated food retailer.
These stories were just a few we heard during this event, emphasizing the unique and innovative work being done across the country to enhance health and access to food for folks from all walks of life. The Obama Administration has made increasing healthy food access a priority. In partnership with the White House, the Department of Treasury, HHS, and USDA have been working collaboratively to support innovative strategies to increase healthy food access.
One such strategy is the Health Food Financing Initiative or HFFI. The recently signed Farm Bill authorizes an HFFI program at USDA and the President’s most recent budget proposal includes a request of $13 million for this work. The initiative will provide financial and technical assistance to eligible fresh, healthy food retailers for the purposes of market planning and promotion efforts as well as infrastructure and operational improvements designed to stimulate demand among low-income consumers for healthy foods and to increase the availability and accessibility of locally and regionally produced foods in underserved areas.
This program will help USDA to continue collaboration with other federal partners to ensure that communities in need have access to fresh, healthy, affordable food. It will expand healthy food access for families on SNAP – some 46.6 million individuals in 2012, the vast majority of whom are children, elderly or living in households where members were employed in low-wage jobs.
A particular focus for USDA will be the expansion of healthy food options in rural areas, which often lack grocery stores and other retail outlets. HFFI will allow USDA and our partners to support creative strategies to increase access to healthy foods in Rural America.
The USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative also coordinates work on local food investments, including distribution, which is a key element of increasing healthy food access. The White House Rural Council is making healthy food access in rural communities a priority, as it impacts the future health and economics of rural America.