White House Pitches $400M for Healthier Neighborhood Food Outlets

The connection between walkable development and grocery shopping may not seem immediately apparent — until you consider studies conducted in cities from Austin to Seattle that showed the share of trips taken by foot or by transit rises as local food outlets move closer to residential areas.

31193700_386561bcbd.jpgThe White House budget envisions a new investment in urban farmers markets’ such as this one, which served D.C.’s low-income Anacostia area for two years. (Photo: DC Food for All)

Even in transit-rich New York, a highly touted new Costco is laying off employees as shoppers avoid its not-too-walkable location. On the flip side, farmers’ markets are seeing new growth and serving more lower-income shoppers in Milwaukee, Oakland, and other areas.

Now the White House is getting in on the action, with $400 million included in its fiscal year 2011 budget to support development of new food outlets in urban communities where the nearest grocery store is often a half-mile or more away — the neighborhoods that policymakers call "food deserts."

The White House proposal is modeled after a Pennsylvania effort that has steered more than $57 million in grants and loans to develop 74 local food markets in lower-income areas of the state. The Obama administration’s version would be anchored by $250 million in New Market Tax Credits, which give developers incentive to launch new projects in economically distressed areas.

While the $400 million budget plan is not being directed through the U.S. DOT, it could have a significant upside for urban transportation officials looking to improve access to transit and create new opportunities for walkability.

  • Food is indeed a great way to transform neighborhoods to be around people and places. You can almost rank the quality and walkability of streets based on presence and visibility of food. Cities first formed as markets for the exchange of food and where they have gone wrong is perhaps where they have moved food away from the streets eliminating the frictions and social and cultural connections that they propagate.

    William H. Whyte famously said that “the best way to seed a place is to put out food.”

    With this in mind, The NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign pursued and received a major grant from the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Fitness Initiative to bring this approach to improving walkability in lower income sections of NYC. We are now embarking on the implementation phase of the grant with TA in a leadership role. NYC and 8 other cities can now be in a good position to leverage these investments for broader community and walkability outcomes.

    More on the on the NYC Food and Fitness Initiative:
    http://www.nycfoodandfitness.org/index.php

  • The flip side of this is pressure to consolidate stores, regardless of the consequences. When Whole Foods took over Wild Oats, there was smirking from the financial pages as to how now a number of neighborhood Wild Oats stores — such as the one in my Capitol Hill (Denver) neighborhood — could be closed. We were supposed to drive to the bigger store a couple of miles away, except that auto ownership is low in this neighborhood.

    The neighborhood is one of the few in the Denver metro area with big-city local transit service, it’s one of the few where casual car-rentals work, and anyone watching the store lot can see that a big share of the business walks or bicycles in. Few of these customers would have trekked through traffic to the bigger store in an upscale shopping complex.

    Had these customers switched to shopping by bus, they would have found that Whole Foods’ major competitors are at better locations and have been upgrading their merchandise. Therefore, putting these shoppers on the bus would have sent them to the competition.

    Fortunately, Whole Foods has taken this into account so far and has upgraded the neighborhood store, but it was morbidly fascinating to see the investment community’s pressure to do something dramatic, before the takeover could even be digested and intelligent decisions made. How many “food deserts” are a result of rational decision-making and how many have resulted from a demand to “do something” agressive to show to investors?

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