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Healthy Food Access in Rural and Underserved Communities

Healthy food access is essential for decreasing diet-related diseases and obesity.  However, access to healthy food is limited in rural and underserved communities.

Here’s what we’re finding about having access to healthy food — and how it’s able to stimulate economic growth, improve health outcomes, and enhance the lives of families in communities across the United States.healthy food access in rural areas

Healthy Food Access

For more than two decades, researchers have been gathering data to determine whether there are connections between access to healthy food and decreased obesity rates and other diet-related diseases.

Overall, research shows that, over time, people purchase and consume healthier food when it’s locally available.   However, improving healthy food access — especially in lower-income communities in both urban and rural locations — goes beyond health outcomes and improving diet.

Bringing new food outlets into rural and underserved areas can also provide an economic stimulus in communities that may need it most.  These monetary profits include improving the viability of neighborhood retail districts, stimulating local economic activity, increasing wages, providing new jobs and job training programs, and creating new tax revenues.

Increasing Access to Health Food

For decades, both social and economic obstacles and barriers have prevented many healthy food retailers from entering rural and underserved communities.  And these healthy food retailers could offer economic and community health benefits where they are most needed.

However, things are changing, as programs offering incentives to consumers, retailers, and producers are providing the support and encouragement needed to overcome some of these barriers. These programs often show positive economic impacts with just a small amount of initial seed capital.

Individuals and communities that are increasing healthy food access and availability are showing that they can provide significant community development and economic stimulus.  Healthy food access is an effective tactic for boosting economic and community strength, as well.

Retailing Healthier Food

Debates and research about the relationship among purchasing and eating behaviors, health outcomes, and local food environments rarely delve into the health benefits of healthy food retail.  New corner stores, grocery stores, farmer markets, and other food retailers can help to generate significant economic stimulus and improve the health of communities that lack access to healthy food.

The following are some suggestions to help bolster economic growth and healthy food access in rural and underserved communities.

  • Urban agriculture: Across the United States, urban farming has been reemerging as an approach to improve health food access and stimulate economic revitalization. Urban farms that process and package foods — in addition to cultivating them — are able to create a considerable number of jobs.  A recent Michigan State University study determined that a combination of a variety of urban agriculture strategies could supply local residents with more than 40 percent of their fruits and 70 percent of their vegetables.
  • Community gardening: Community gardens are a relatively easy way of improving healthy food access and generating community and economic development.  Community gardens are likely to yield a high return on investment — estimated to a one to six ratio of dollars invested to the value of produce raised — in addition to an estimate to generate revenues up to $90,000 per acre.
  • Federal nutrition assistance programs: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) are two programs that are designed to help low-income families meet their nutritional needs.  Redeeming SNAP and WIC benefits in local stores and markets provides economic stimulus.  The programs also have an impact on the community by generating additional spending and jobs.
  • Farmers’ market: Farmers’ markets have been growing and becoming more popular, in recent years.  They offer fresh local foods and goods, serve a vibrant community gathering place that promotes social unity, and stimulates local entrepreneurism.  A number of farmers’ markets across the U.S. have begun accepting federal nutrition assistance benefits, such as SNAP, WIC, and other supplemental nutrition vouchers and coupons.  A recent survey found that three-quarters of Americans support a nationwide program to double the value of SNAP benefits when used at a farmers’ market.
  • Grocery stores: The grocery store industry is enormous.  Even during times of economic downturns.  In 2011, reporting sales in the U.S. exceeded $540 billion.  These stores employed over two million people, on a payroll of more than $50 billion.  The average supermarket ranges from 20,000 to 50,000 square feet in size.  One new store could generate 48 to 120 new jobs.  In rural communities, a new grocery store contributes significantly through taxes, charitable donations, and employment.  One of the most successful grocery store attraction strategies comes from the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.  This public-private partnership helped to develop or improve 88 supermarkets and fresh food outlets in underserved, rural, and urban areas throughout the state.
  • Food hubs: Food hubs are a relatively new strategy developed specifically to benefit small to mid-sized producers.   Food hubs make possible local food production, distribution, and consumption.  They also provide economic benefits by reinvesting in the community.  For example, The Common Market food hub in Delaware Valley is harvesting rewards for local farmers and residents — including low-income people.  The Common Market connects wholesale customers to farmers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, by combining food from their warehouse from about 100 regional producers, and marketing and distributing locally grown fresh food to hospitals, schools, workplaces, and grocers.  The Common Market’s work has lowered the price of food, making healthy food available to low-income families.  Food hubs are also gathering attention from a number of funding sources to help initiate start-up — including the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative and the national Convergence Partnership Innovation Fund.

Making Improvements

Increasing healthy food access in rural and underserved areas is not just a means for reaching increased economic benefits, tax revenues, new jobs, and wages.  Improved health outcomes are equally as important.

Millions of people are struggling to help make ends meet.  Healthy food access is another way of improving our health and boosting economic and community vitality.

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