The grocery industry is increasingly consolidated. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods for $14 billion sent grocery stocks tumbling and had many analysts worrying about the end of local mom and pop grocery stores.
Nowhere would be harder hit than food deserts—areas, mostly low-income, without access to fruits, vegetables, or other healthy food. According to the USDA, 6,500 census tracts, or about 10 percent of American communities, are food deserts, and 25 million Americans lack access to a grocery store.
One of the leading champions on issues of food insecurity in Congress is Indianapolis Rep. André Carson (D-IN). In 2014, a study by WalkScore.com rated the city as the worst in the country for food deserts. The following year, the iconic Double 8 Foods supermarkets—which served neighborhoods largely neglected by other chains—closed its four locations, citing declining revenues.
I spoke to Rep. Carson about his efforts to expand access to healthy meals and his recent legislation addressing food deserts.
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Jeremy Slevin: What made you decide to take action on food deserts?
Rep. André Carson: In recent years, Indianapolis has been one of the worst food deserts in the country. Around 2014 we saw four Double 8 grocery stores close, and then last year it got even worse when several Marsh stores closed their doors. Many assumed that those customers would just get their groceries elsewhere. But unfortunately I think the implications were greater than that, and overnight we saw thousands of Hoosiers effectively lose access to the only grocery store they had available.
We’re talking about low-income families, often without vehicles or even access to public transit, and they’re living miles from the closest store. They had nowhere to go to buy fruits and vegetables and bread and milk, so they really relied on what they could find at their local convenience stores and fast food restaurants. The closure of these stores has created food deserts throughout the district.
JS: So tell us what your bill does to address this.
AC: The bill tries to address the absence of nutritious foods in many urban and rural communities by providing loans for the operation of grocery stores. The Department of Agriculture would provide grants to each state to establish a revolving fund, and each state would provide loans from its revolving fund for the construction (and even operation) of grocery stores, specifically for underserved communities. These loans would be made available to for-profit, non-profit, even locally-owned entities.
The states would handle loan processing and make awards to organizations that meet the requirements, but they have to have an emphasis on unprocessed nutritious foods, providing fresh fruits and veggies, providing staple foods like milk, bread, and wheat, charging prices below market average, and be sufficiently qualified to operate a store.
I think it’s important to note that priority will be given to applications that include a plan to hire workers from those underserved communities and provide information about healthy diet. They’re going to get their food from local gardens and farms, and a lot of these entities will not have beer and wine or tobacco products readily available—but I think in the future that’s an option that they can pursue if they want to go through the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.
JS: So what’s at the root of this problem? Why are these stores closing in Indianapolis, and what’s the impediment to opening up new grocery stores in low-income areas right now?
AC: I think we haven’t brought enough attention to the issue nationally. It’s not specific to urban centers—rural communities are impacted as well. I think corporations and entities make corporate decisions that address their bottom line, but we have to make sure that the NGOs and other entities are in place so we can [incentivize] them to provide resources to these communities.
JS: Is part of the issue that it’s just not as profitable, unfortunately, in lower-income communities to have these grocery stores, and that’s why they need this leg up?
AC: Perhaps some would make that argument, but I would counter that and say that the demand is always there. If you look at the Double 8’s, there were customers there, but the facility was unkempt, the food offerings were spoiled or nearing spoilage, and it just wasn’t a great place to get food to attempt to live a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t a sustainable existence. But the demand is always there. If you see a clean facility where healthy options are being presented, there’s a sense of pride that people will in doing business with that kind of operation.
JS: You mentioned transportation earlier, which seems like another huge driver of this. Do you think more investment in public transit in low-income communities could help stem this crisis as well?
AC: Absolutely, that’s always an issue. Folks who are on fixed incomes or have fewer means to purchase a vehicle, they have to rely on public transportation or friends and family.
JS: Do you see a path to this passing in Congress?
AC: We’re hopeful. It’s going to take a concerted effort to educate members of Congress, but also constituents and constituencies across the country to encourage and force their representatives to support this legislation. And the farm bill is a critical part of that conversation.
JS: And this is something that you’re hoping to be included in the farm bill negotiations?
JS: What’s been the response, if any, from the other side of the aisle?
AC: I think we’re in the midst of an austerity push, but we’re not in Europe. There are budget hawks that would be concerned about the cost of this, and understandably so. But this proposal helps their constituents. It helps spur economic growth, it helps their constituents live healthier lives, and have some sense of dignity about being able to go to a store that’s clean—where customer service is paramount, where food offerings are healthy, and the presentation is very professional.
JS: Obviously, we’re talking specifically about food deserts, but food insecurity is a problem that affects this entire country, particularly kids, that is not often talked about in the media. What more do you think we can do to shine a light on food insecurity more broadly?
AC: Studies have shown that when kids don’t have the nourishment they need, it impacts brain activity, it impacts retention in terms of memory, it impacts performance as it relates to their ability to contribute as a student and process information. And I think addressing these food deserts and having our schools be a part of this discussion will close the gap on many of these concerns. I even think that there are several attempts to get rid of the designation for free lunches for students because it removes the stigma. Schools have to be a part of this larger conversation if we’re going to address many of the issues in some of our schools that are underperforming.
JS: And we’ve even seen reports of school districts shaming kids for getting subsidized school lunches.
AC: That stigma’s been around for years. Kudos to those school districts and states that are attempting to remove the stigma. That’s something that’s been a source of bullying; it’s been a source of increased absences, so I think taking away that stigma will go a long way.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.