Bipartisan legislation (House Bill 250) would create a special $1 million fund to help urban and rural small food retailers in North Carolina’s “food desert zones” purchase refrigerators and shelving to sell fresh fruits and vegetables to their customers.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are defined as:
“…urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.”
An area technically qualifies as a food desert if the USDA’s Economic Research Service has determined that is has a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or has a median family income at or below 80 percent of North Carolina’s median family income and it has at least 500 people of its residents (or at least 33 percent of the population) who live more than 10 miles from a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet store (or for a metropolitan area, live more than one mile away).
The proposed legislation assists small retailers in addressing this lack of access to healthy foods by making money available (up to $5,000 per small food retailer) to “purchase and install at a small food retailer refrigeration equipment, display shelving, and other equipment necessary for stocking nutrient-dense foods.” Allocation of these resources would be based on the area’s level of need.
According to data available from the USDA Food Access Research Atlas, North Carolina has at least 349 food deserts across 80 counties. Over 1,544,044 residents live in these food desert zones. According the the National Research Council, residents living in food deserts are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other diet-related conditions, while simultaneously being more likely to be food insecure.
The consequences of food deserts could be enormous for public health, the economy, national security, and more. A report in the Journal of Health Economics found that 21% of U.S. healthcare expenditures ($190 billion) in added medical costs come from obesity-related problems.
This legislation is based on the final report from the Legislative Research Commission’s Committee on Food Desert Zones issued in April of last year and builds on a pilot program launched by the North Carolina Division of Public Health in 2011.
Click here for an interactive map of North Carolina’s food deserts from North Carolina Health News.