Legislation isn’t only solution

Published 10:17 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Congressman Donald McEachin was in town last week to help serve residents at a local food pantry and drum up support for a bill he has co-introduced with a bipartisan cadre of colleagues.

The Democrat who represents part of Suffolk as the representative from Virginia’s 4th District helped hand out bags of fresh fruit and vegetables to more than 40 individuals, including eight volunteers who spread out to deliver to elderly residents across the city.

McEachin hopes his bill will help eliminate “food deserts,” or areas where residents don’t have enough access to fresh, healthy food.

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

Parts of downtown Suffolk have been identified as a food desert, as have more rural areas of the city. To be a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at least 500 people or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must live more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles.

The people in these areas, theoretically, have less access to a place where they can obtain fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and other nutritious foods. However, corner stores that sell snacks and preserved, processed foods with high salt, sugar and fat content and low nutritional value tend to proliferate in these areas.

It’s an important topic, because the people who live in these areas tend to have higher rates of conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and their lack of access to healthy food is not only exacerbating their conditions but also is a probable cause of them in the first place.

However, this isn’t a problem that Congress can singlehandedly legislate away, as it — and many citizens, too — so often seems to think is the solution.

McEachin’s bill can be a good start, but it is up to states and localities to put these tax credit and grant programs to work in order to attract a grocery store to locate in these areas. The nonprofit sector has a role to play, too, with partnerships to bring farmers’ markets and other initiatives to the affected areas.

In some urban food deserts, such as Suffolk’s downtown, availability of space may be an issue, along with many other complicating factors that would need to be solved before any incentives congressional bill-writers could dream up would be able to be used.

Everyone can be part of the solution to this problem, but it doesn’t start with Congress. We urge the city of Suffolk and our local nonprofits and business community to help eliminate Suffolk’s food deserts, regardless of what happens with McEachin’s bill.