WASHINGTON — Today, Congresswoman Nikki Budzinski (IL-13) and Congressman Jonathan Jackson (IL-01) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture urging Secretary Tom Vilsack to make additional resources available to rural and urban communities struggling to maintain access to healthy and affordable food options.
“We write to you today to express our deep concern about an increase in food deserts across the state of Illinois, in our rural and urban districts. Communities that experience harm from the lack of healthy and affordable food options are more likely to face negative effects that lead to health disparities. Failure to address a rise in food deserts will continue to have far-reaching consequences,” wrote the Members. “We urge you to prioritize combatting the expansion of food deserts and invest additional resources in communities that are in grave need.”
Budzinski has relayed concerns to Secretary Vilsack that a recently announced closure of the Cahokia Heights Walmart will worsen an already existing food desert for local residents. She highlighted the needs of Cahokia Heights residents in a March 29th hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture.
Budzinski has cosponsored the Food Deserts Act which would provide USDA funding for state-operated revolving funds to issue low interest loans for the operation of grocery stores in communities with limited food access. The bill ensures that recipients of these loans, including for-profit, non-profit and municipal entities, will provide affordable, healthy food, including fresh produce and staples like milk, bread and meat. It also ensures that USDA professionals are available to provide technical assistance to recipients who need it.
Budzinski has also pushed for full funding of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative during the Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations process, which works to improve access to healthy foods in underserved areas, create and preserve quality jobs and revitalize low-income communities. The program aims to build a more equitable food system by providing financial resources to eligible healthy food retail projects and food supply chain enterprises to overcome the high costs and initial barriers to entry in underserved areas.
The full text of the letter can be found here and below.
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
We write to you today to express our deep concern about an increase in food deserts across the state of Illinois, in our rural and urban districts. Communities that experience harm from the lack of healthy and affordable food options are more likely to face negative effects that lead to health disparities. Failure to address a rise in food deserts will continue to have far-reaching consequences. We urge you to prioritize combatting the expansion of food deserts and invest additional resources in communities that are in grave need.
As you may know, the presence of food deserts in the state of Illinois has exacerbated food access challenges in many parts of our state. Food deserts are often defined as geographical areas where residents have limited or nonexistent access to healthy food options due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distances. In these areas, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meat, and fish are often tough to source or too expensive to buy. Nutrient-dense foods are essential to positive long-term health outcomes. These unfortunate outcomes have the propensity to disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color. According to data retrieved from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) says that approximately 3.3 million Illinoisans, or roughly one in four residents in the state, live in a food desert.
Urban food deserts are defined as areas where distance to a grocery store from a community measures more than 1⁄2 a mile and rural food deserts measures distances more than 10 miles. While food deserts are often associated with urban areas, we continue to learn that rural food deserts are continuing to grow. This past April, in Southern Illinois, a Walmart located in Cahokia Heights closed its doors, leaving many constituents with reduced access to healthy foods. But as we know, urban areas in the state also continue to struggle with healthy food access. Store closures from grocers such as Aldi and Whole Foods in South and West Chicago this fall, followed by Walmart closing their supercenter location in Chatham and three neighborhood markets in Lakeview, Little Village and Bronzeville, demonstrate the extent of this crisis.
Families who are facing food insecurity need more access to grocery stores and other businesses that can help fill the need for nutritious food. In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker and state lawmakers are currently working on a bill to establish the “Grocery Initiative.” This legislation, Senate Bill 850, would create a program that would study food deserts within the state as well as provide grants to new or existing grocery stores in these areas. The grants would be available to grocery stores that are organized as independently owned for-profits, co-ops, nonprofit organizations as well as grocery stores owned by local government entities. This bill plans to invest $20 million in these initiatives. Projects like those pursued by the state of Illinois are a great step and should be championed and supported by the federal government as we work together to solve these problems—but more can be done.
USDA must continue to invest in and prioritize programs that reduce the number of food deserts in communities. To do so, we must fund at the maximum level programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) which is designed to improve access to healthy foods in underserved areas and work to revitalize low-income communities. We request that you also continue to invest in farmers markets and fresh produce programs that can serve as connective tissue between the absence of grocery stores and residents that do not have the means or access to healthy foods. Lifting up programs like the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) that authorizes grants for entities that conduct projects that incentivize the purchase of fruits and vegetables to improve the health and nutrition of participating households is essential to reducing food deserts across the country.
We are grateful for all the work that USDA does to support our families and we hope food deserts will remain at the top of your priority list. Food deserts should be considered a crisis and our collective response should represent that level of urgency. We thank you for your attention to this matter and look forward to your response.