Her approval rating on the rise amid a difficult election battle, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) joined the president’s campaign against childhood obesity this week by proposing $1 billion in loans and grants to build healthier neighborhood grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
Gillibrand’s legislation, co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), aligns with the $400 million healthy food plan included in the 2011 White House budget. Both programs would follow the template of Pennsylvania’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative by offering loans and grants to help construct new grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other food outlets in historically under-served neighborhoods.
The bill aims to eradicate the growing phenomenon of "food deserts," the moniker advocates have bestowed on lower-income areas — in New York and Chicago as well as in more rural areas — where the lack of access to fresh food leaves residents dependent on sugary, fattening fast-food alternatives.
Traveling outside a food desert is often impossible without a car, an option out of reach for many of the neighborhoods’ most needy residents.
Research on travel behavior conducted by the University of California-Davis’ Susan Handy found that in areas where markets and other stores were one-fifth of a mile or less from most homes, 87 percent of residents regularly walked to run errands. When that average distance between home and market increased to three-fifths of a mile, the share of even periodic foot travelers dropped to one-third.
Gillibrand’s office also highlighted the job-creation potential of healthier food access, estimating in a release that the $1 billion grant program would create 200,000 new jobs nationwide and 26,000 in New York City.