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Fund to bring more fruits and vegetables to local ‘food deserts’

POSTED July 26, 2011 10:28 p.m.

First Lady Michelle Obama announced partnerships last week that could potentially bring large grocery retailers to parts of Merced and Stanislaus counties. Obama joined major retailers to bring affordable healthy food to millions of people who were identified as living in areas where they are not likely to have access to fresh produce and other healthy food options.

“We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local minimart, then all that is just talk. Let’s Move is about giving parents real choices about the food their kids are eating, and today’s announcement means that more parents will have a fresh food retailer right in their community – a place that sells healthy food, at reasonable prices, so they can feed their families the way they want,” Obama said.

The announcement was part of Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, which has a primary goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President identified access to healthy, affordable food as a key to solving childhood obesity. 

Locally, Obama has partnered with The California FreshWorks fund, a private-public partnership loan fund that has raised $200 million to invest in bringing grocery stores and other healthy retailers to areas of California that were identified as “food deserts.”  The United States Department of Agriculture used census data and a directory of supermarkets to identify low-income areas where residents had low access to fresh foods. Specifically, areas where low-income households were located more than one mile from a supermarket in urban areas, or 10 miles in rural areas.  Areas were broken down by census tracts, and several parts of Merced and Stanislaus counties were identified as food deserts.

The USDA map uses low income residents’ proximity to supermarkets to identify these food deserts. The map does not take into account smaller fresh food retailers. For example, areas of Modesto and Empire are considered to be in a food desert, despite the presence of large fruit stands that sell fresh produce year-round.  Areas are also grouped by census tract, and income levels and access to supermarkets could vary within the tract. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative Working Group considers the map’s data to be an accurate representation of the nation’s need for healthier food options.

"This new Food Desert Locator will help policy makers, community planners, researchers, and other professionals identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh, healthy, and affordable food more readily available to residents," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Using this food desert data, the Let’s Move! campaign partnered with several national retailers to bring new supermarkets or other large retail stores to identified food deserts.  Walmart has committed to opening 300 stores, all of which will sell healthy food options, by the year 2016. Walgreens pledged to expand its food offerings to include fruits, vegetables, and other healthy options in at least 1,000 stores.

For more information about the California FreshWorks Fund, visit www.cafreshworks.com. To find out if your area is considered to be a food desert, visit www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/fooddesert.html.

To contact Andrea Goodwin, e-mail agoodwin@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2003.

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