Fixing food deserts, one grocery store at a time

Alabama joins a growing list of states with public-private “healthy food financing initiatives."

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In and around Birmingham, Alabama, fast food is more than easy to find.

A search for “fast food” on yellowpages.com serves up a smorgasbord of options, including Chick-Fil-A (20 locations), McDonald’s (38 shops), Taco Bell (24 stores), and Church’s Chicken (19 stores), as well as multiple locations for Hardee’s, Krystal, Burger King, Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen, Bojangles, Sonic, Whataburger, Wendy’s, Subway and Jack’s.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, are much scarcer. The grocery store chain Aldi boasts just three locations in Birmingham proper, while the more upscale Fresh Market chain owns just one store.

In fact, according to a report by The Food Trust, large swathes of Alabama are “food deserts” lacking access to supermarkets with fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthier foods. Nearly 1.8 million Alabama residents – including half a million children – live in low-income areas without adequate access to full-service groceries, the report concludes.

“People are traveling 10 to 20 miles outside their communities to purchase food,” says Jada Shaffer, campaign manager for the non-profit VOICES for Alabama Children, which commissioned the study along with the Alabama Grocers Association.

And that’s assuming people have transportation. More often than not, Shaffer says, families are relying on what’s nearby: gas stations, convenience stores – and fast food.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Alabama has among the highest obesity rates in the country. More than 32 percent of Alabama adults are obese, while 35 percent of children are overweight.

Alabama food deserts

To make it easier for Alabamians to find healthier options in their own neighborhoods, the state recently passed legislation to create a revolving loan fund – the “Healthy Food Financing Fund” – to help finance the construction or expansion of grocery stores in currently underserved neighborhoods. With this effort, Alabama now joins a growing number of states and cities – including California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania and the City of New Orleans – that have launched similar initiatives.

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