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Commentary: New law will increase access to healthy California foods

Issue Date: October 26, 2011
By John Pérez
Improving access to healthy foods in “food deserts”—for example by bringing grocery stores to underserved areas—benefits both public health and the local economy.
John Pérez

On the dawn of the Great Depression, then-presidential candidate Herbert Hoover famously promised a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Today, even as our nation muddles through our own Great Recession, one look at the 405 freeway during rush hour makes clear that as a nation and state, we have certainly managed to put a car in almost every garage. However, our ability to deliver on the chicken—and other healthy food items—is a challenge we absolutely must meet if we are to protect and improve the health of the people of California.

While most would consider dietary choice one of the biggest hurdles to healthy living, California's nutritional shortcomings extend beyond that of trans fat and caloric challenges, and into the disturbing realm of simple access to affordable, healthy food options. Even in the year 2011, there are urban and rural communities throughout the state whose residents do not have access to grocery stores that offer fruits, vegetables and dairy products. These communities, referred to as "food deserts," are not only prevalent in California, but are cause for concern throughout the entire country. Residents of food deserts generally have higher incidences of premature death, and are susceptible to a variety of nutrition-related ailments, including heart disease and diabetes.

Even though California's farmers have an international reputation for their production of high quality, healthy fruits and vegetables, food deserts are a real public health problem in California. That's why I authored Assembly Bill 581, legislation that begins to eliminate food deserts, increases access to healthy foods and has the potential to create jobs in the local economies of food desert areas.

Last year, President Obama initiated the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Treasury, to invest $340 million nationwide with the goal of eliminating food deserts across the country within seven years through innovative financing, grants and private sector engagement. AB 581 creates California's own Healthy Food Financing Initiative, marking the beginning of an effort to assist communities of need through financing options, as well as partnerships with governmental agencies, non-profits and philanthropic groups.

AB 581 also enables California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross to establish an advisory committee that will provide the Legislature with recommendations by July 1, 2012, on how to increase access to healthy foods.

I have firsthand knowledge of the economic benefits that occur in communities that combat food deserts. I worked for nearly a decade to bring a full-service grocery store to the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood I now represent. The community—which was previously considered a food desert—is now home to one of the most profitable stores in the entire chain. Bringing that grocery store to the neighborhood benefitted both the public health and the local economy—something AB 581 stands to duplicate all over California.

California's farmers have been providing healthy food to people all over the world, and now the Legislature's overwhelming bipartisan support of AB 581, coupled with Gov. Brown signing the bill into law, will increase access to healthy foods in underserved rural and urban communities, right here at home. So even if someone doesn't have a car in their garage, they won't have to look too far to find a healthy chicken—and vegetables—for their pot.

(John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, serves as speaker of the California Assembly.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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