Healthy foods bill could bring more grocery stores and farmers’ markets to East and West Oakland

The California Healthy Food Financing Initiative could help bring produce stands and other sources of healthy food to under-served communities.

The California Healthy Food Financing Initiative could help bring produce stands and other sources of healthy food to under-served communities.

A statewide bill declaring that “access to healthy food items is a basic human right” is a signature by the governor away from becoming law.

The California Healthy Food Financing Initiative (CHFFI) landed on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk last week, after the state Senate and Assembly both voted to approve it by a wide margin. If signed by the governor, the bill would help bring more grocery stores, farmers’ markets and other sources of produce to under-served communities throughout the state, including West and East Oakland.

“Policy makers are starting to say that there is a public interest in access to healthy food, and government has a role to play in that,” said Heather Wooten, a senior planner at Public Health Law and Policy, and a member of the Oakland Food Policy Council. “We say the same thing about affordable housing, clean air and clean water.”

The bill was introduced by California Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles). The goal of AB 581 is to increase access to healthy foods in under-served communities, or “food deserts,” by funding grocery stores, farm stands, community gardens and other fresh food vendors who need financial start-up support.

The bill defines food deserts as neighborhoods lacking access to “affordable, quality, and nutritious foods.” This is different from the federal definition of a food desert, which uses the distance from households to the nearest supermarket as a measure. Wooten said the definition of a food desert needs to take into account that supermarkets are not the only venues selling healthy, affordable food. Community gardens, produce shops and farmers’ markets can also bring fresh produce to a community.

“These all paint part of the food landscape where we live,” Wooten said. “Each neighborhood will need a slightly different mix of things. A new supermarket isn’t what every neighborhood needs, a new farmers’ market isn’t what every neighborhood needs. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Wooten said parts of East and West Oakland are food deserts. “There are 30 liquor stores and no full service grocery stores,” she said of West Oakland. “Oakland is incredibly under-retailed, generally, for our population size.”

Groups in Oakland and all over California have been promoting access to healthy food and getting policy makers to understand that this is a priority issue, she added, and this bill is a reflection of that advocacy.

The proposed legislation would create an inter-departmental council, with representatives from the California Health and Human Services, Food and Agriculture and Labor departments. The council would work with the State Treasury to find financing for the healthy food fund and establish guidelines for food providers to apply and receive money. The fund would be established in the California State Treasury, and would include federal, state, philanthropic and private funds.

“There is definitely so much need for this kind of financing, and there is room for state, federal and local players to make these projects happen,” Wooten said. “Financing and development is incredibly complicated and the more sources that are available, the easier it will be. No one financing source will be able to meet the need.”

The bill also calls for the Secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture, Karen Ross, to form an advisory committee of not more than 21 members, reaching out to a spectrum of interested parties including food providers, community advocates, grocery industry players and agricultural representatives. The committee members would devise a set of recommendations on how to bring healthy food to rural and urban communities throughout California, and present their findings to the state legislature by July of 2012.

Pérez, who introduced the bill in February, said he’s seen firsthand the importance of a grocery store for an area in need. “I worked for nearly a decade to site a full-service grocery store in the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood I now represent,” he said. “Bringing that grocery store to the community benefitted both the public health and local job creation—something AB 581 stands to duplicate throughout the state.”

The CHFFI passed the state Senate 30-7 and the Assembly 73-4. It was presented to the governor last week, on September 19. Last year Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill—AB 2720—after it passed the legislature.

The proposed legislation is following a state and national trend of financing efforts to confront food deserts. The California FreshWorks Fund (CFWF) launched in July as part of President Obama’s National Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The $200 million fund is available to help healthy food vendors, from grocery stores to farmers’ markets, set up shop in under-served communities around California.

The CFWF is a partnership between the California Endowment—a private health foundation—and banks, grocery groups and healthcare organizations, including Oakland’s Kaiser Permanente. It was modeled after healthy food financing programs in Pennsylvania and New York, launched in 2004 and 2010, respectively.

In particular, Wooten said funds like the CFWF and the proposed California Healthy Food Financing Initiative can benefit enterprises like People’s Community Market, an independent grocery project in West Oakland that is currently in the planning and fundraising phase. Similar projects often can’t take advantage of more traditional funding sources like bank loans or investors because they are not focused on turning a high profit.

Nikki Henderson, the executive director of People’s Grocery, the non-profit organization that helped start the People’s Community Market project, said when she read the bill, she was moved by the strong language used.

“There is a bill that states healthy food is a human right,” Henderson said. “That is deep.”

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