Spring 2014

How to Eliminate Food Deserts In Your District

By U.S. Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge (OH-11), Chair, Congressional Black Caucus is committed to stamping out hunger, ending childhood obesity, and improving the health of Americans. She is a member of the House Agriculture Committee where she serves as Ranking Member of the Department Operations, Oversight and Nutrition Subcommittee.
How to Eliminate Food Deserts In Your District
It takes two bus transfers and a half-mile walk for John to buy groceries from the nearest supermarket.  Since this trek is both inconvenient and time consuming, he chooses to grab dinner at the fast food restaurant down the street. The next day, John decides to pick up a hot dog and slice of pizza from the gas station on the next block. He promises himself a trip to the grocery store over the weekend, but doesn't go because it is too much of a hassle.  Instead, he goes to the convenience store on the corner and stocks up on frozen dinners. John has not had any fresh fruit or vegetables all week.
While John is a fictional character, this story is all too real for millions of Americans who may live more than a mile from a supermarket. When you live in a food desert, you need transportation to access affordable fresh produce and other nutritious foods, but it is often nonexistent. However, you will find unhealthy foods readily available at nearby gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants.

Cleveland is one of the first major cities to adopt urban garden zoning, and it is one of the fastest growing urban agriculture sectors, thanks in part to public-private partnerships. It is therefore important to expand the definition of farming to help eliminate food deserts in the Eleventh Congressional District of Ohio (OH-11) in which Cleveland is located, and elsewhere. 

Cleveland’s model can be replicated in other municipalities around the country. For example, I recently connected with AgriBank, CoBank, and Farm Credit Mid-America, which collectively provided $135,000 for a Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition program called “Gardening for Greenbacks,” a program created to decrease food deserts. Through the Gardening for Greenbacks initiative, urban farmers can receive $5,000 grants for equipment to produce fresh, healthy, locally-grown foods.  Among other requirements, grant candidates must take a master gardener training class offered by The Ohio State University Extension to qualify.

The Natural Resource and Conservation Service Agency (NRCS) is another government resource that can help reduce the number of food deserts. The agency made funding available for Seasonal High Tunnels (hoop houses) to individuals in non-traditional, urban settings. These urban farmers often choose abandoned lots to refurbish, and with hoop houses, are able to harvest year-round. To date, OH-11 constituents have received three rounds of funding from NRCS to build approximately 40 hoop houses.

In addition to providing greater access to healthy foods, it is equally important to ensure the affordability of these locally grown foods. I introduced the Let’s Grow Act to incentivize local farmers, like those who use hoop houses, to provide affordable food and accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Although the act is not law, 26 out of 32 farmers markets in Cuyahoga County accept SNAP. Twenty of these markets match $10 in SNAP produce purchases, increasing consumers’ purchasing power and their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

A provision of the Let’s Grow Act can also be found in the recently enacted Agricultural Act of 2014 (also known as theFarm Bill). The provision establishes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to provide loans and grants to eligible food retailers that expand access to healthy foods. The Farm Bill also expands funding opportunities for urban farmers by extending access to youth loans to urban residents, and by creating a Microloan Program for loans of $50,000 or less to new or non-traditional producers. 

Some of the most important provisions in the Farm Bill relate to SNAP. A consistent fighter for SNAP benefits, I know that the compromise provision of SNAP cuts in the Farm Bill is fair, especially when compared to the $40 billion in cuts proposed in the nutrition bill passed by the House of Representatives in 2013. SNAP helps feed millions of Americans, 47% of whom are children. The parents of most of these children work, but earn meager wages. SNAP is needed by these families to make ends meet.  Yet, some of my colleagues tried to gut the program in the name of deficit reduction. As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) representative to the Farm Bill Conference Committee, I would not allow this to happen.  

The $8.6 billion savings in SNAP over 10 years come from a change in how the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is linked to SNAP, resulting in a reduction in benefits for approximately 850,000 households in 16 states. Since the Farm Bill has passed, however, many of these states have promised to invest in retaining the link between the two programs so their families will not see a significant reduction in SNAP benefits.

The Farm Bill also rights an almost century-old wrong by finally granting 1890 land-grant status to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, a designation I actively supported. For Central State, a historically black college/university, this designation means more students will be incentivized to attend an institution that will receive federal agricultural research and construction funds. In addition, these students may also receive support through the USDA’s 1890 National Scholars Program, which offers full scholarships to students seeking a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, food, or related fields.   

The farming landscape has changed, so if you are not familiar with the field, it is time to become educated. State legislators should help their constituents become aware of new and existing agriculture programs as it pertains to urban gardening. Creative partnerships that combine federal, state, municipal, and private resources should be supported to foster economic development and encourage healthier lifestyles. We must be part of the solution by educating the people we serve about proper nutrition and increasing access to healthy produce.  Together, we can help constituents like John and improve the quality of life for all in our communities.
U.S. Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge (OH-11)

Chair, Congressional Black Caucus is committed to stamping out hunger, ending childhood obesity, and improving the health of Americans. She is a member of the House Agriculture Committee where she serves as Ranking Member of the Department Operations, Oversight and Nutrition Subcommittee.

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