Democratic Assemblyman William McCurdy plans to ask the Legislature for $10 million to start a fund he hopes will attract grocery stores to underserved urban and rural communities.
McCurdy said his aim with the bill, which is still being drafted, is to stimulate private investment in low-income neighborhoods to alleviate if not eliminate food deserts — areas where a significant number (at least 500 people), or at least 33 percent of the population live more than one mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store in an urban area.
McCurdy’s said that while campaigning in his North Las Vegas district, an issue that came up again and again among his constituents was the lack of grocery stores and fresh food.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are 40 identified food deserts in Nevada, with 154,623 Nevadans meeting the criteria of living in a low-income food desert.
“What I’m looking to do is create Nevada’s first fresh food financing initiative, which will be a statewide financing program that’s looking to attract supermarkets and grocery stores to low income urban and rural underserved communities,” McCurdy said.
The bill will be modeled after Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), McCurdy said. Since it was created in 2004, the initiative has financed 88 grocery stores in communities across Pennsylvania, and program supporters say it has revitalized local economies with the creation and retention of 5,000 jobs.
“This is a good model to duplicate and I believe there will be an appetite within the Legislature to support it,” said McCurdy. “At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is incentivize and attract supermarkets to underserved communities, urban and rural.”
By providing New Markets Tax Credits, grants of up to $250,000, and loans that range in size from $25,000 to $7.5 million, FFFI provided an incentive to encourage viable supermarket operators and developers to set up shop in underserved communities.
Pennsylvania’s FFFI began with the allocation of $10 million in state funds to create the program in 2004, allocating an additional $10 million for the next two years, bringing the total state investment to $30 million. The state dollars were then leveraged by The Reinvestment Fund, a community development financial institution, with private investors to create a $120 million financing pool for grocery stores and supermarkets. McCurdy said he plans to follow the Pennsylvania funding model in his bill.
Almost all of the stores funded through the initiative are independent, locally owned businesses that range from natural foods cooperatives to small greengrocers to full-service supermarkets. Supermarket chains haven’t invested in what they view as undesirable markets — markets where banks and other lenders are also reluctant to finance independent retailers. But provided financial incentives, independent grocers see opportunities in these communities.
McCurdy said much of the initial footwork and data needed for the bill is already available, thanks to the Council on Food Security which was established by former Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2014. Part of Nevada’s action plan to improve food security includes increasing school gardens in order to “supplement a household’s supply of fresh produce or encourage entrepreneurial efforts.”
As part of the council’s work, the Legislature allocated $610,000 to help schools develop food gardens. But as helpful as those gardens can be, they fall far short of meeting the community’s needs. And local officials have suggested grocery stores won’t locate in low-income communities without public incentives.
The objectives of the program are to: Reduce diet-related diseases by providing access to healthy food; increase investment of private investment in low-income communities; lower operating barriers for grocers in poor communities; and create jobs that provide a living wage.
With a lack of grocery stores, fast food chains infiltrate low-income neighborhoods to meet food demands, damaging public health, said McCurdy.
“Just in the last few years — on the corner of Lake Mead and Martin Luther King Jr. — we got an El Pollo Loco, a Del Taco, and right next to that? A McDonalds,” said McCurdy. “Around the corner from that McDonalds is a Jack in the Box, and next to that is a Taco Bell, and right next door to that Taco Bell — a Panda Express. Across the street from all that is a small solitary market that a lot of the community depends on to get a lot of their fresh food.”
Mario’s Westside Market, the sole grocer surrounded by a blight of fast food chains, has seen a demand for low-cost fresh produce in an area with few options, according to co-owner Bill O’Connor who runs the market with his business partner Mario Berlanga.
The market participates in a program that matches federal nutrition (SNAP or food stamps) benefits to increase access to fresh produce to low-income families using private grant money while supporting farmers and local independent grocery stores that benefit from the extra income.
“Everyone seems to be really happy with the program so far,” said O’Connor. “We’ve definitely sold more produce since we started the program.”
While McCurdy said local philanthropic efforts have carried a lot of the weight in decreasing food insecurity he believes a statewide initiative is needed to provide a level of comfort for potential investors and show the state’s commitment to eliminating food deserts.
“We have to do something,” McCurdy said. “I don’t think that we can afford not to make progress in this area.”