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Bringing a grocery store into an underserved neighborhood not only makes fresh produce and other healthy food more accessible, it can provide livingwage jobs, raise the value of surrounding property, and anchor and attract additional businesses to the neighborhood. A wide range of public, private, and nonprofit organizations work to support projects - like grocery store development - that help build a healthy economy. This guide is designed to help advocates and public health agencies coordinate and leverage tools available through local government and other organizations to bring healthy food options into low-income communities. Economic development refers to a range of activities that help build and sustain a healthy economy.
Local governments can promote healthy eating and active living in their communities by supporting local farmers' markets. Local farmers' markets provide fresh produce to community residents, support small farmers, serve as community gathering places, and revitalize community centers and downtown areas.
Farmers markets are experiencing a resurgence, increasingly recognized as important hubs for local food systems in the United States. In the last 15 years, the number of farmers markets in the United States has increased from 1,755 to 5,274; however, low-income communities have not fully participated in this upward trend. This is especially problematic in light of health disparities faced by impoverished communities and communities of color, which is in part aggravated by a lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets can play an important role in improving such access. Lowresource communities not only provide unique opportunities for direct marketing producers, but also substantial economic, social, and at times cultural barriers to the successful operation of farmers markets. One such barrier has been the transfer of food stamps (now known as SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from a paper coupon to a debit card format. Between 1994, before this change started to take place, and 2008, the value of SNAP benefi ts redeemed at farmers markets dropped by 71% in constant 1994 dollars. All told, SNAP transactions at farmers markets accounted for a mere 0.008% of total SNAP transactions nationwide in 2009. By way of comparison, USDA estimates that American consumers spend roughly 0.2% of their food dollars at farmers markets.
For millions of Americans, accessing healthy food is no easy matter. In low-income communities, liquor stores and gas stations proliferate, while farmers' markets are hard to find. Nationally, 11.5 million low-income people live in low-income areas where the nearest supermarket is more than one mile away. Although areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food (known as food deserts) have great demand for healthy food, traditional financial institutions - like regional or national banks - often are reluctant to invest in food retail development projects in these areas. At the same time, development costs are often higher in underserved urban and rural communities. Bringing healthy food to food deserts requires tenacity, ingenuity, and a significant investment of capital. Financing healthy food retail development often means combining private dollars with grants and loans from government agencies. These public resources can reduce risks associated with private capital investment in low-income communities.
As has been widely reported, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of farmers markets in the United States in the last ten years from some 1,755 markets in 1994 to 4,385 in 2006. Over three million consumers shop weekly at these markets, where an estimated 30,000 small to mid-sized farm operations and food entrepreneurs earn a partial or full living selling their local products. USDA has projected roughly $1 billion in annual consumer spending in urban, suburban and rural farmers markets. This remarkable increase has been made possible because of the groundswell of interest in farmers markets at the community level. Grassroots organizations - churches, downtown associations, chambers of commerce and community food activists - are increasingly becoming market organizers and/or sponsors, and are expanding to new locations and communities. Today, farmers markets vary in size from a few vendors to many hundred, with management ranging from a vendor-volunteer to a professional management team. Farmers markets are located in economically, ethnically and socially diverse neighborhoods and, increasingly, are gearing their efforts toward improving access to fresh food for all community members. This has included a growing number of farmers markets that accept FMNP coupons and EBT/Food Stamps.
Since 2000, the number of farmers markets across the United States has increased 80% to reach over 5,000 by 2010. Farmers markets seem to be popping up everywhere: they can be found in neighborhood parking lots, at bus and train stops, and even in front of hospitals. Their popularity is testament to the multiple benefits they bring to customers, vendors, and communities: stimulating economic growth and job opportunity, revitalizing downtowns, creating active spaces, and helping to preserve farmland and minimize sprawl. Farmers markets are not only great community places and excellent shopping destinations; they are also key ingredients in our country's fight to combat diet-related illness such as diabetes and heart disease, and are increasingly being developed to reach lower-income customers. Indeed, the power of markets to bring together diverse types of people and to serve all income levels makes them ideal venues to promote public health.
Communities around the country are looking to promote healthier eating by encouraging urban agriculture. "Urban agriculture" is an umbrella term encompassing a wide range of activities involving the raising, cultivation, processing, marketing, and distribution of food in urban areas. In many communities, urban agriculture takes the form of backyard gardens and community gardens - places on public or private property where neighbors gather to cultivate vegetables and fruits, and even keep bees or raise poultry and small livestock. The food in community gardens is typically grown for the gardeners' own consumption or donation. Urban agriculture also encompasses urban farms (also called "market gardens" or "entrepreneurial agriculture") - enterprises, both for- and nonprofit, that grow produce on a larger or more intensive scale for sale.