State needs more markets, fresh food to reduce obesity

By LACEE SHEPARD

Capital News Service

LANSING – People in urban and rural areas need better access to healthy food, the Michigan Food Policy Council said in its new report.

Michigan faces the problem of having food accessible to markets, just not in all the right locations.

That problem prompted groups like the Michigan Food Policy Council to take action, said Jane Whitacre, its director. The council is a commission set up by the state with members representing areas such as agriculture, industry and education.

A few years ago, more than 400 food advocates convened to put together a “road map” to build Michigan’s economy by improving its use of agriculture, she said. By 2020 its goal is that 20 percent of food purchases in Michigan will be from Michigan producers and growers.

The council’s new report recommends building the capacity of Michigan’s farmers markets to allow more people to have healthy food options.

That access should be both physical and financial, Whitacre said.

The issue is the lack of markets close enough to where some people live, coupled with the fact many can’t afford to travel to these locations, she said, contributing to medical problems.

“There were negative surveys that three out of every 10 adults are obese in our state,” Whitacre said. “There is 52 percent obesity prevalence in neighborhoods with only convenience stores.”

These areas have no supermarkets or other retailers that sell healthy options.

The goal of the initiative is to fix that shortage and provide access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and perishables, said Auday Arabo, president of Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers in West Bloomfield.

Although the initiative has been underway for about two years, Michigan is just now making strides to see things happen, said Arabo, a member of the council.

The council is advocating a national healthy food financing initiative.

“No one in the state has applied for it, according to Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.,” Arabo said.

The healthy food financing initiative is one solution to the problem. The goal is to bring investments in communities and provide loan and grants to support these struggling areas.

That is part of another recommendation from the council’s report, to support a state-wide healthy food financing initiative and provide access to financial capital for job creation in the local food system.

Michigan would not be the first state to initiate such a food supply model.

“It originated in Pennsylvania around 2007,” Arabo said. “Other states use it, like California.

“They are all using federal dollars to help independent owners open businesses, and they have supermarkets in certain areas so they have the ability to get fresh produce, meat and vegetables,” Arabo said. “Pennsylvania used an estimated $40 million to create 81 or 82 supermarkets in areas from Philadelphia to rural areas–and those businesses are still around today.”

Whitacre said the council is promoting the plan and looking for partners at this time.

Better access to healthy food will help reduce obesity and prevent parents from going without food so their children can eat. It will solve the problem of children relying on school meals for their sole nutrition and not having anything to eat on weekends, she said.

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