U.S. Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., and U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., are once again co-sponsoring a bill in Washington that seeks to address the problem of so-called “food deserts” where low-income residents living in rural areas have limited access to nutritious food.
As expected, the pandemic has made it more difficult for some families to seek out and afford healthy foods, particularly for those living in more rural parts of West Virginia and Virginia. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are defined as areas without grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and ten or more miles in rural regions.
Warner and Capito last week joined U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan and U.S. Senator Bob Casey, D-Pa., in re-introducing the Healthy Food Access for All Americans (HFAAA) Act. The legislation aims to expand access to affordable and nutritious food in areas designated as “food deserts” by the USDA.
“Many Americans living in rural communities—including those in West Virginia—have difficulty accessing fresh and nutritious foods,” Capito said. “I’m proud to reintroduce this legislation, which will go a long way in helping to improve access to groceries and healthy foods across West Virginia and make it easier for businesses and non-profit organizations to serve our rural communities.”
“Today, too many Americans lack access to fresh nutritious and healthy foods,” Warner added. “Unfortunately, that reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, which has made it even more difficult for working families to seek out and afford healthy foods.”
The proposed legislation would grant tax credits to food providers who service low-access communities and attain a “Special Access Food Provider” (SAFP) certification through the Treasury Department. Incentives would be awarded based on the following structure:
• New store construction – Companies that construct new grocery stores in a food desert will receive a onetime 15 percent tax credit after receiving certification.
• Retrofitting existing structures – Companies that make retrofits to an existing store’s healthy food sections can receive a onetime 10 percent tax credit after the repairs certify the store as an SAFP.
• Food banks – Certified food banks that build new (permanent) structures in food deserts will be eligible to receive a onetime grant for 15 percent of their construction costs.
The intent of the Healthy Food Access for All Americans legislation is good, particularly in light of the struggles area families have faced since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year. However, we also maintain that the wording of the federal legislation is nevertheless misleading.
We aren’t living in a food desert. In fact, most families in our region do have access to a grocery store. And there are a number of grocery stores locally that provide access to healthy and nutritious foods. Yes, some families may have to travel a few extra miles to reach those stores, but we hardly think calling the Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia region a “food desert” is an appropriate description.
Still, if the legislation can improve access to healthy food for area families during this ongoing pandemic, we won’t argue against it. But we would once again implore our lawmakers in Washington to exercise restraint when it comes to portraying our region in a light that may not necessarily be positive.