Bill could make healthful foods more available

A new financing program to encourage the development of grocery retailers in high-poverty areas advanced from general file March 31.

LB200, introduced by Omaha Sen. Brenda Council, would direct the Rural Development Commission to create a financing program to stimulate grocery retail in underserved communities, which would be defined as high-poverty areas with limited access to healthful food retailers.

Projects eligible for financing would include new construction of grocery retail structures, grocery store renovation, expansion and infrastructure upgrades, establishment of farmers markets, community gardens, mobile markets and delivery projects that increase capacity of food retailers to obtain fresh produce.

Qualifying applicants would provide regular offerings of fruits and vegetables and accept benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Applicants would be required to demonstrate how the project would be implemented, a need for public financing, how incurred debt would be repaid, the extent to which the project would provide new markets for Nebraska-grown food items and the degree to which the project will have a positive economic impact on the underserved community.

The bill would establish the Nebraska Healthy Foods Financing Initiative Cash Fund to which any appropriated funds and other funds acquired through gifts, grants and transfers would be deposited. The bill originally would have provided annual transfers of $100,000 from the Agricultural Opportunities and Value-Added Partnerships Cash Fund during the next biennium.

An Agriculture Committee amendment, adopted 37-5, changed the funding source for the Nebraska Healthy Food Financing Initiative Cash Fund from the Agricultural Opportunities and Value-Added Partnerships Cash Fund to the state’s general fund. To provide additional monies to cover the program, the amendment would reduce the maximum tax credits offered under the Community Development Assistance Act from $350,000 to $200,000.

The committee amendment also removed a section of the bill directing the commission to use up to $60,000 from the new fund for a report regarding food availability.

Council said a recent interim study focusing on food availability found that both urban and rural areas of the state suffer from inadequate access to fresh vegetables, fruits, lean meats, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

A study conducted in Douglas County found that areas with the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases had low access to healthful food, Council said. LB200 would provide seed money to start farmers markets or grocery stores in these areas, she said, which would address health concerns and provide an additional market for producers.

“LB200 is a small first step toward the elimination of food deserts in Nebraska,” Council said. “This is a small investment that could reap immeasurable returns for this state.”

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash spoke in support of the bill, saying it could help fight childhood obesity. Thirty-one percent of Nebraska children are overweight or obese, he said, adding that studies suggest greater access to supermarkets is associated with reduced risk of obesity.

Ellsworth Sen. LeRoy Louden doubted that many start-ups would be helped by the bill, which he said could provide funding for large companies that use token expansions to their stores or delivery routes to become eligible.

Elk Creek Sen. Lavon Heidemann also spoke in opposition to the bill, saying a number of existing programs could fund the projects addressed in LB200.

Lawmakers voted 34-9 to advance the bill from general file.

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