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‘Not a political issue, a human issue’: Lawmakers tackle food deserts

RICHMOND, Va. – Cranes and bulldozers across Fairmount Avenue in Church Hill are a welcome sight to Creighton Court resident Robert Carrowy.

A new grocery store is slated to open in North Church Hill later this year, but for now, Carrowy said he was to walk more than a mile into downtown Richmond to buy fresh produce.

Carrowy is one of thousands in the Richmond region who live in what the USDA define as food deserts; communities that lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. At least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store

To help lift Virginia communities that struggle with access to food, a group of bi-partisan state lawmakers want to create the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund.

The lawmakers want to build the framework for a fund that will provide grocery store developers with one-time loans or grants to open stores in underserved communities throughout the state.

Work underway on a proposed grocery store in North Church Hill

In his outgoing 2018-20 state budget, Governor McAuliffe included $7.5 million to launch the fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Every state dollar invested in the fund would bring in three dollars of private funding, so proponents said the private sector would provide most of the money. The combination of state and private investment would result in $30 million to launch the Grocery Investment Fund, which would help build at least 15 new grocery stores, advocates said.

According to the governor’s office, more than 1.7 million Virginians, including 480,000 children, live in low-income areas that have few grocery shopping options.  When healthy foods are out of reach, diet related diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, become more prominent, advocates said.

“This is a human issue, not a partisan one,” said Republican State Senator Bill Stanley, who introduced legislation to help create the fund. “The funding mechanism generated by this bill is similar to the process employed by the Tobacco Commission and the Commonwealth Opportunity Fund, which creates opportunities for new jobs and revitalize communities.”

“Far too many Virginians live in communities without access to the resources needed to live healthy lives,” said Del. Delores McQuinn, who represents parts of Chesterfield, Henrico, and Richmond.  “It is my hope that my colleagues in the legislature will see how essential it is to meet the needs of all our citizens in the Commonwealth.”

Virginia’s First Lady, Dorothy McAuliffe, has spent the last four years living in the Executive Mansion --within a few miles of several food deserts in Richmond.The First Lady said she and her husband recognize that thousands of families living in Richmond do not have the means to enjoy the thriving restaurant scene in downtown.  It is one reason she is throwing her full supported behind creation of the fund.

“We believe that a Commonwealth as great in resources and human potential as Virginia should not have its capital city be a food desert,” McAuliffe said.  “We cannot have real opportunities for children to reach their full potential if their families are hungry.”

Republicans and Democrats sponsoring the legislation said they are not telling their colleagues “why” the legislation is important; instead, they are asking they “why not” try to expand food access and create jobs in impoverish communities.

Their framework legislation and the proposed state money to launch the fund would require approval by the General Assembly and Governor-elect Northam.

Carrowy is glad that grocery store relief is already on the way.  He said he will continue to buy food at local convenience stores and the Family Dollar, but said he and his neighbors will be regulars at the new grocery store when it opens.

“I’ll still go to Family Dollar, but mostly I’ll be across the street too! Especially across the street, we need that!”