A food desert is described by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an area that is “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods.” Food deserts are delineated by census tract and the official definition takes into account distance to a supermarket and median family income and census tract poverty levels.
A Florida TaxWatch analysis of data presented in the USDA’s 2015 Food Access Research Atlas indicates that about 26 percent of Floridians meet the USDA’s food desert distance criteria – that is, they live further than one mile from a grocery store (or 10 miles if they are in a rural census tract). Over 8 percent of Floridians, or about 1.6 million residents, fit both the distance and income requirements of a food desert.
Last month, Florida TaxWatch published a report documenting the negative impact of food deserts on health and property values. This report specifically recommended the establishment of “financial instruments that make grant and loan money available for food retail projects to increase the presence of grocery stores and supermarkets in the areas that lack access to healthy foods.”
The Healthy Food Assistance Program legislation (SB 1592) introduced by Senators Bean and Baxley, is in direct line with Florida TaxWatch’s recommendation. The Healthy Food Assistance Program sought to establish a process by which small food retailers can receive grant assistance for projects that increase the availability of healthy foods in food deserts. SB 1592 was unanimously approved by the Agriculture Subcommittee and the Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, landing in the Senate Appropriations Committee. A similar house bill (HB 1083), introduced by Representative Lee, made it through the Agriculture and Property Rights Subcommittee but was not put on the agenda in the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. While it is unlikely this program will be approved this session, Florida TaxWatch encourages Florida lawmakers to carefully consider the merits of the Healthy Food Assistance program for next session. In order to preserve and improve their health, Floridians must be able to access affordable, healthy foods, no matter where they live.