By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

foodtrust

For millions of Americans, geography might be the biggest barrier to a healthy diet.

Massachusetts is one of a growing number of states where advocates are pushing state legislatures to create easier access to healthy, affordable options in “food deserts” — which the Department of Agriculture defines as locations where people live more than 10 miles away from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas, or more than a mile away in urban ones.

Studies show that a lack of access to healthy foods can contribute to a poor diet and lead to higher levels of diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Since 2011, the federal government has spent almost $500 million to improve food store access in neighborhoods lacking large, well-stocked grocery stores, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

States and local governments have also launched programs to attract supermarkets or improve stores in underserved areas. Massachusetts ranks 48th in the nation for grocery store access per capita. And according to a nonprofit that supports the healthy food movement, low-income areas and communities of color are hardest hit by this lack of access to healthy foods.

“While Massachusetts is a relatively wealthy state, we struggle with some very significant disparities,” said Rebekah Gewirtz, the Massachusetts Public Health Association’s executive director.

Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed an economic development bill into law that authorized $6 million for a food trust to help grocery and corner stores, farmers’ markets and other programs to invest in healthy food access.

While states navigate how to attract funding to make it easier for communities to access healthy food, some experts argue that fixing food deserts isn’t the answer — or at least the whole answer.

Jason Block, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and co-author of a study about food deserts, argues that just because consumers have access to supermarkets doesn’t mean they’ll buy healthy foods there.

“Access to food establishments of all types has increased over time,” said Block, an internist with training in epidemiology and population health. “While there are still disparities in access — especially to supermarkets — generally access has improved.”

Addressing food deserts has value, he said, but so do things like improving school nutrition programs and even staffing stores with nutritionists to help shoppers. And, he said, adding grocery stores to food deserts “can be engines of community development and economic opportunity.”

Efforts are sprouting in Pennsylvania, which has provided $30 million in public funds, plus a $117 million private investment, to address food deserts. Dallas said it will give $3 million to developers to build a “quality grocery store” on the city’s south side. And Southeast Michigan is targeting kids and seniors with $2 million shared among 20 programs to improve access to healthy food.

In Ohio, where nearly 1 million residents — including close to a quarter million children — have poor access to grocery stores, a task force wants the state to invest $10 million to encourage grocers to open new stores in underserved areas.

In North Carolina, three local organizations got a boost over the summer when a private insurer doled out $75,000 to improve access to healthy, affordable food. The state has also secured $250,000 to launch a healthy corner store program, a step toward a loftier goal of securing $1 million in recurring funding.

“We hope it will help communities by providing access to healthy, fresh and affordable food, and we hope we’ll be able to work with the Department of Agriculture to help local farmers find new markets for the products they are growing,” said Morgan Wittman Gramann, managing director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health.

Morgan noted that “food deserts are low-income communities, not just any community. We find that this is an important piece of the definition.”

Louisiana passed a healthy food access law more than seven years ago, but the initiative remained unfunded until June when Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a budget bill that includes $1 million in funding to implement the state’s Healthy Food Retail Act.

It is an interesting time in Louisiana because about 20 parishes sustained heavy flooding in August, said Kathryn Parker, executive director of Market Umbrella, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that operates farmers markets for the public good. “Because of the disaster there is even a greater need.”

The healthy food funds will be used for grants and loans for grocery stores, farmers’ markets, food hubs and other healthy food access options. A food hub manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of food, typically from small, local farming operations.

“We are trying to make it so that a healthy choice is an easy choice,” Parker said.