The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. The USDA’s most recent study says 39 million Americans live in “low-access communities” or communities in which at least a third of the population lives more than a mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store in an urban area, or more than 10 miles away in a rural area.
Imagine having to travel for longer than 15 minutes to a grocery store that just received its latest shipment of food commodities and dry goods. The COVID-19 crisis has wiped out the shelves in stores for days and made food staples even scarcer than they already were.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are now learning firsthand what it may be like to live in a food desert, a neighborhood where residents have little or no access to fresh and healthy food. According to Lauri Andress, assistant professor at the WVU School of Public Health, COVID-19 and related regulations have a greater chance of negatively impacting those living in poverty within food deserts. Even in normal times, finding affordable, fresh food isn’t easy for residents in food deserts like the St. Paul’s Quadrant in Norfolk. There is just one grocery store within a 2-mile radius for the 1,700+ families living in the low-income neighborhood.
In the case of food deserts, we know that how an individual experiences food security in those areas is dependent on whether there is access to reliable transportation and a regular income. Those with a vehicle and a stable income may simply drive out of the food desert and secure nutritious, affordable food. On the other hand, for those who rely on others for transportation and experience low or no employment, accessing affordable, nutritious food becomes even harder, especially as the guidance provided by the governor and CDC during COVID-19 is to close most businesses, shelter at home and practice social distancing.
COVID-19 creates new food access challenges in addition to the ongoing struggles of individuals who live in areas without nearby grocery stores, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, older adults living alone and those reliant on public transit. Amid the effects of the coronavirus, mass transportation has seen a drastic reduction in ridership due mostly to stay-at-home orders and the fear that pathogens are more easily transmitted in close quarters. For those considered essential employees who also rely on public transportation, the result is even fewer travel options. Individuals with strong support networks may rely on friends, family members, neighbors and local volunteers to pitch in to bring groceries. But that’s not enough.
As Virginians are advised on how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to consider how the guidance might be constrained by structural factors beyond any one person’s ability to control. However, these conditions are not limited to the circumstances brought on by the new coronavirus; it is ongoing for many of our neighbors, and we have an opportunity to help mitigate these circumstances through state legislation.
During the 2018 and 2019 Virginia General Assembly sessions, state legislators introduced a bi-partisan bill entitled, “The Virginia Grocery Investment Program and Fund” (VGIF). Through the creation of a public-private partnership leveraging state dollars with private money, the VGIF aimed to provide one-time, low-interest loans to encourage grocers to open or renovate stores in underserved communities. The goal was to solve the persisting problem of food deserts across the commonwealth and aimed to provide greater access to fresh, nutritious foods to the 1.7 million Virginians (including 480,000 children) who live in low-income communities with limited supermarket access. Although the bill did not make it past the House Appropriations Committee, we anticipate the renewal of this effort in the next session and urge our legislators to make it a priority.
We have also seen a similar effort on the federal level entitled, the “Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act” (HFAAA). The HFAAA would benefit low-income rural and urban communities that have limited or no access to nutritious food by providing tax and grant incentives to food service providers such as grocers, retailers and nonprofits who expand access to nutritious foods in underserved communities. Low-income communities already exist in an epidemic of poverty and low-wage jobs. Legislation that addresses ongoing access to nutritious food is necessary to ensure that following the pandemic, these communities are not further devastated due to no fault of their own.