New legislation aimed at ‘food deserts’

Published 9:50 pm Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Congressman Donald McEachin, VA-04, rolled up his sleeves to help hand out food to dozens of residents in line on Friday at Solomon’s Porch, located on South Sixth Street off East Washington Street.

The East End Baptist Church food pantry distributed bags of fresh fruit and vegetables to more than 40 individuals in the afternoon chill, including eight volunteers that delivered to elderly across the city, according to Food Pantry Director Yvonne Green.

“We have a real need, and that’s everywhere that uses the system,” Green said. “We don’t turn any away.”

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But McEachin wasn’t there just to hand out food. He was drumming up support for new legislation he has co-introduced in Congress.

Congressman Donald McEachin, VA-04, discusses his efforts to address hunger and food insecurity on Friday at the Solomon’s Porch food pantry run by East End Baptist Church.

He and church members were joined by Ruth Jones Nichols, chief executive officer of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, and Foodbank staff.

McEachin, a Democrat who represents part of Suffolk, spoke about the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, which he co-introduced with Reps. Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican; Dwight Evans, a Democrat from Pennsylvania; and Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio. A companion bill was also introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Mark Warner.

If signed into law, the bill would establish a tax credit and grant program to incentivize grocers, nonprofits and other food service providers to invest and support food partnerships in low-income and rural areas.

“It gives local economic development officers another tool in their toolbox to be able to attract grocery stores and folks who want to be able to offer healthy food to folks,” McEachin said.

He said the bill is a response to his constituents’ concerns about living in “food deserts,” or areas where access to affordable, healthy food is restricted or nonexistent. Parts of downtown Suffolk have been identified as a food desert, as have more rural areas of the city.

“What this bill will do is provide resources so that either for-profit grocery stores can come to our community, or nonprofits can come to our community, and deliver these services for you so that you don’t have to drive over a mile to get to a good grocery store to get healthy food,” he said.

Jones Nichols said the Foodbank’s network of food pantries is the best option for many families to get fresh fruits, vegetables and protein. The bill would support their efforts and that of community partners.

“Our goal is to do things with the community, not ‘for or ‘to’ the community,” she said.

The Foodbank and its partner agencies distributed 861,000 meals throughout Suffolk in fiscal year 2017, and 94,606 of those meals were distributed by East End Baptist Church, according to Communications Manager Todd Emmett.

The church received a 2017 Food Lion Feeds grant for $4,200 spent on pantry renovations, which was renamed Solomon’s Porch after the renovations were completed this fall, Green said.

“They’re doing such good work in the community in terms of trying to feed folks,” McEachin said about Solomon’s Porch.

Green said the bill would help church volunteers feed the thousands of men, women and children they support annually.

“We couldn’t exist without the food we receive from the Foodbank, and this bill will help them provide more fresh food to organizations like us.”