December 7, 2021

Building an Equitable Food System: America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative & other Tools for Increasing Food Access

By Olivia Chatman, Program Associate – Food Initiatives, Reinvestment Fund Across the country, the shameful…

By Olivia Chatman, Program Associate – Food Initiatives, Reinvestment Fund

Across the country, the shameful reality of limited access to healthy food plagues historically marginalized communities. It is an issue that is rooted in discriminatory policies and disinvestment, and is reflected in the 27.6 million people living in places with inequitable and inadequate access to healthy food, according to our research on supermarket access disparities in the contiguous United States. In cities like Atlanta, supermarket development has notoriously followed patterns of redlining, a discriminatory lending practice beginning in the 1930s, as retailers concentrated development in wealthy, white communities while avoiding low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

 Atlanta’s recently released Fresh Food Access Report showed that 25% of the city’s population lived more than half a mile away from fresh food as of 2020, an indicator of limited food access according to the USDA’s Food Research Atlas. Nationwide, there are significantly fewer chain supermarkets in predominantly low-income areas in comparison to middle-income areas. Similarly, there are approximately half as many chain supermarkets in predominantly Black neighborhoods in comparison to white neighborhoods. 

Addressing food access challenges relies on partnerships and collaboration. Community organizing, advocating and engagement are all important pieces in the process of making steps towards food justice and dismantling food system inequities. Reaching these goals requires resources, such as money and technical expertise that can ensure the long-term sustainability of community efforts. Unfortunately, these tools are often not easily accessible in the underserved communities to which they would be most beneficial.  

As a national community development financial institution (CDFI) with offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, Reinvestment Fund works in a variety of sectors, including food access, healthcare, education, and housing to address historic disinvestment and inequity due to systemic and institutional racism. These historic inequities have prevented certain groups of people, especially people of color, from accessing the resources needed for community development and prosperity. In the food space, Reinvestment Fund has pioneered strategies to provide debt, grants, and technical assistance, and analytical tools to support equitable food systems with programs such as the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative that serves as a model for food access partnership and investment strategies. 

Over the last ten years, Reinvestment Fund has deployed over $253 million in financing in for healthy food retail and non-retail projects nationally.  With a dozen studies on topics related to food, including access, financing mechanisms, program design, and food systems, Reinvestment Fund has produced a body of research, which furthers collective knowledge about opportunities and gaps. Reinvestment Fund has also convened peer CDFIs in food systems lending for learning and advocacy towards building the field of expertise and resources to invest in food systems projects and retail food access. Fundamentally, moving towards the creation of a more equitable food system will require continued widespread collaboration between stakeholders and organizations, and the disbursement of knowledge and tangible resources to marginalized communities through organized efforts.  

America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative

Financing food retailers and other food system businesses to develop, renovate, and expand in historically marginalized communities is one effective approach to addressing inequities in the nation’s food system. These investments help retailers increase availability and access to food in underserved communities while also contributing to local economies. America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) is a national program that embraces this framework by providing capital, in the form of grant funds and technical assistance, to food retail organizations and non-retail food enterprises in underserved areas. HFFI is a public-private partnership administered by Reinvestment Fund on behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development to improve access to healthy food in underserved areas that was established by the 2014 Farm Bill and reauthorized in 2018. Since then, the program has distributed $4.8 million in targeted assistance to 43 food access projects, including grant awardees in 23 states and technical assistance recipients in 12 states. 

Through HFFI, organizations and entrepreneurs are receiving grant funds and technical assistance to tackle food access gaps in their communities.  A diverse range of food retail and non-retail enterprises qualify for funding including independent grocers, alternative models – such as virtual and mobile markets – and other businesses looking for upfront capital to support project development, renovation, or expansion. Grant funds can be used for a variety of project needs such as predevelopment necessities, one-time fees, soft-costs, construction, equipment, materials, or as portion of an overall capital project that includes debt and/or local economic development incentives. Local to Georgia, the City of Albany’s Department of Community and Economic Development is using a $150,000 HFFI award to bring an affordable independent grocery store with a low-cost business model to the community. The South Albany community lost its grocery store in 2018 and is designated as a USDA Low Income Low Access area. The new Food for Less will make it easier to access healthy food locally and, while also creating new jobs.

To be eligible for the HFFI program, food retail projects must accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Over 42 million low-income Americans receive SNAP benefits and retailers serving low-income communities rely on SNAP sales as a crucial source of revenue for their operations. With an increase in SNAP benefits for US households following the recent update of the Thrifty Food Plan for the first time since its establishment, efforts to expand retailers that accept SNAP benefits through programs such as HFFI complement the modernized plan to elevate food access within underserved populations. HFFI funds are targeted to projects in underserved areas, including the USDA Low Income, Low Access (LILA) areas, and Reinvestment Fund’s Limited Supermarket Access (LSA) areas, in order to address geographic disparities in healthy food access that are rooted in historic disinvestment and disproportionately affect low-income populations, people of color, and rural communities. Addressing the issue of food access for underserved populations by increasing the affordability and accessibility of food is closely tied to national efforts to decrease food insecurity. Increasing food access reduces some of the barriers households face that may lead to consistently disrupted and unhealthy food intake patterns.  

A map of the Atlanta region showing underserved areas in purple, which are eligible for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Targeted Small Grants Program.

Moving Forward

Affordability, access, collaboration, and regional efforts all play a part in addressing food injustices from a perspective of community and economic wellbeing, according to food systems expert Susan Pavlin, who co-founded TAPROOT, served as Founding Director of Common Market Southeast and is a member of the national HFFI Expert Advisory Panel. “The strongest thing that we could do as a state and within the region is to work together to build a regional food economy where food is sourced from people in the [regional] communities,” explains Pavlin. “If we could work together to build the infrastructure, and the access…to make food a regional product, we would also be creating more wealth in the community.”

Making the food system inclusive for all communities across the country is a complex task, requiring multifaceted tools and approaches at various scales, from the grass roots organizations to larger scale businesses and government entities. Pavlin also emphasizes the important role of government entities in this work: “The Farm Bill is a great example with all kinds of impacts in defining what are foods that people can have access to through subsidy programs. Programs like HFFI, which is intentionally looking at how we break down some of those barriers to increase access to healthy food in retail settings, are incredibly good national programs that can really make a difference.”

Pavlin also noted that states and counties also have a lot of say in how that money is distributed. It’s incumbent on states and counties to act in partnership with the federal government to make sure that those resources go where they are needed. Federal programs like HFFI present a framework for cross-sector partnerships that work to invest in the food systems of historically marginalized communities through the distribution of financial and technical tools that make impacts at regional level. With expanded funding from the federal government, HFFI could potentially support expanding partnerships, capacity building and lending throughout the food systems landscape that will further distribute resources into underserved communities. 

Undeniably, piloting food access projects, such as those funded by HFFI, and addressing issues of food insecurity in underserved communities begins with essential conversations at the local level about gaps and needs identified by people living and working directly in these communities. Neighborhood, municipal, and state level dialogues and efforts, such as efforts by the Georgia Senate to study food access in the state, form the basis for assessing need, developing policy and allocating resources that can create more sustainable and equitable local food systems. Ultimately, by investing in equitable and just food systems across the country through collaboration, partnerships, data and financial tools, we are building the essential infrastructure for healthy and economically resilient communities.

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The 2021 cycle of America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative – Targeted Small Grants Program is now accepting applications for grant funding. To download the full Request for Applications and apply online, please visit https://www.investinginfood.com/apply/

 

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Building an Equitable Food System: America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative & other Tools for Increasing Food Access