Fund would increase access to healthy food

A bill heard by the Agriculture Committee Feb. 9 would create a financing program intended to increase underserved Nebraskans’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy food.

LB945, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen, would provide $150,000 to the program for fiscal year 2016-2017 and again for FY2017-2018. The state Department of Economic Development would contract with community development entities, which would award grants for eligible projects such as grocery store renovations and the creation of farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and community gardens.

The bill also would set aside up to $60,000 for the University of Nebraska to conduct a study that would identify areas in Nebraska with limited access to healthy food.

Hansen said that approximately 325,000 Nebraskans live in food deserts—areas that lack easy access to affordable and nutritious food. He said limited access to healthy food affects rural and urban areas and disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities.

“Lack of access to healthy, affordable food ultimately contributes to higher societal costs including increased public costs for providing health services,” Hansen said.

Traci Bruckner, speaking for the Center for Rural Affairs, testified in support of the bill. Research shows that rural grocery stores are closing across the nation, she said, making access to healthy food more difficult.

Data on rural Nebraska grocery stores is not available, she said, but in Iowa more than 43 percent of grocery stores in towns with less than 1,000 people have closed. In Kansas, 38 percent of grocery stores in towns with less than 2,500 people closed between 2006 and 2009.

Small stores could receive grants for distribution projects that would make it easier for them to stock fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.

Kathy Siefken, representing the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, testified in opposition to the bill, saying that it could exacerbate the problem it intends to solve. Funding food cooperatives or farmers’ markets that compete with small rural grocery stores, which operate on thin margins, could force them to close, she said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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