Confronting food scarcity: Policy and government's role in addressing the full picture

09/07/2017 01:00 PM

Editor’s Note: This is part three in a three part series on confronting food scarcity. Part one can be viewed here, and part two can be viewed here.

There are a wide range of organizations throughout Kentucky focused on eliminating food insecurity. To maximize their impact, nonprofits form partnerships, creating a community infrastructure that helps connect people with resources. But their resources can only stretch so far. As a result, support from government agencies is crucial to help widen their reach and impact.

But, policy makers must also find long-term solutions that address the underlying causes of food insecurity. That means addressing economic barriers and cost pressures that people face when meeting their basic needs.

While the number of people experiencing food insecurity across the country fell from 2014 to 2015 by nearly 6 million, the need of people struggling to get enough food rose.

Feeding America’s 2017 Map the Meal Gap shows that numbers across Kentucky and Jefferson County saw this same drop in the number of food insecure people but an increase in the amount of money needed for those people to purchase enough food.

Feeding America cites “persistent economic challenges, such as underemployment and stagnant wages” for why this trend is occurring. Additionally, they say “rising cost for essentials, especially rent and housing expenses, continue to put real cost pressure on low-income families.”

As Theresa Zawacki, the Senior Policy Advisor for Louisville Forward, explains, that cost pressure means food insecure individuals or families have to make spending tradeoffs when it comes to essential expenditures.

“It’s a situation where someone finds themselves having to make tough choices either to make ends meet within their daily needs and their daily lives,” Zawacki said. “And sometimes that means they don’t have enough to eat, so it’s a real struggle for them to identify how they are going to acquire enough food to sustain themselves and their families.”

Louisville Forward is a department of Louisville Metro Government that focuses on economic and community development. It offers services for small business development, as well as larger businesses that group into economic development. Additionally, the department’s community development arm works on a wide range of initiatives, including identifying and repurposing vacant properties.

Zawacki explains that there are many different ways in which Louisville Forward works with people experiencing food insecurity. Those efforts include economic opportunities and building relationships with other organizations.

“A lot of the ways we interact with people who are food insecure is to help raise their ability, either by connecting them with an opportunity for more lucrative employment, by giving them access to training, by giving them access to affordable housing, which we also have programs to fund,” Zawacki said. “But we also interact with a lot of community organizations, such as Dare to Care , New Roots, the Cooperative Extension service, to support their efforts and doing the things they do best to reach people who are food insecure.”

Additionally, Zawacki says that Louisville Forward manages food initiative programs that help get locally grown food into organizations such as Jefferson County Public Schools. They also partner with Louisville farmers markets for the Double Dollars Program.

Grocery Store Accessibility

One barrier between individuals and nutritious food is access to a grocery store. At the beginning of this year, the Kroger in Old Louisville announced it would be closing its doors by the end of the month.The Courier Journal reported that it was the fifth grocery store in a lower income area to close shop in recent months.

Zawacki says there are several reasons that contributed to grocery stores closing up shop across downtown Louisville, particularly in lower income areas. It wasn’t just about profit margins. Rather, the expanding size of grocery stores and the growing number of products offered also contributed to stores no longer being sustainable.

“A typical modern grocery store footprint is closer to 90 [thousand] to 100,000 square feet of space, and the reason that’s the case is that the grocery retail model has a very slim profit margin,” Zawacki said. “And so in order to increase opportunity to generate revenue many of those stores have expanded their selection beyond just groceries into household items, and furniture, and clothing, and things like that. And so you see these superstores developing on the outskirts of communities or in more suburban communities because that’s where the space exists to support a footprint of that size.”

But that isn’t the only issue that led to grocery stores closing down across lower income areas of Louisville. Zawacki explains that another factor was lease negotiations between grocery stores and their landlords.

“People who are operating grocery stores didn’t actually own the property in which the store was located,” Zawacki said. “And so as lease negotiations progressed they didn’t go in ways that would allow that store to stay. It didn’t make sense either for the landlord or for the tenant so the stores closed.”

Louisville Forward is looking to address the access issue that arises when grocery stores close by examining real estate solutions and market opportunities. To address the real estate issue, the city has purchased two former grocery store properties.

“Our goal in acquiring those properties is to facilitate conversations with potential grocery providers about locations,” Zawacki said. “We know that there are two big factors that grocery stores have to consider when they are looking for new locations. One is that capital investment and that real estate solution that they need to be successful, and then of course is the market situation.”

Louisville Forward is trying to better understand the market situation so they can address both of those factors grocery stores face when looking for an area to locate.

“We’re looking to understand more about the market demographics in areas that we see as in need of a grocery store, in the hopes of using that data to encourage a grocery brand to consider that location,” Zawacki said.

Addressing the Full Picture of Food Insecurity through Policy

Louisville Forward enjoys working with community groups because of their ability to address different parts of the food insecurity. Zawacki says that organizations such as Dare to Care and the Cooperative Extension play an important role because they provide people with access to food that they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, food insecurity isn’t just about access to food.

“There’s a role for those organizations to play in addressing food insecurity, but we see a great need for a solution that fills the whole package of grocery services and needs,” Zawacki said. “So you think about what you put in your grocery basket when you go to the store. And its produce and proteins, but it’s also those incidental household items like toilet paper that are going to be essential to your happiness and your ability to thrive.”

Zawacki explains that opening up grocery stores and the work done by different community organizations are all important pieces to addressing the entire picture of food insecurity. In addressing that full picture, Louisville Forward tries to find ways to help people live close to the services they need.

“Whether that’s a job center, whether that’s a school that their child attends, whether that’s a grocery store or shopping area where they can meet multiple needs in one trip, the city is interested in spreading opportunity to live in those places where services are available to everyone,” Zawacki said. “One of the ways that we’ve done that is through the creation of the Louisville Cares program. That’s a revolving loan program that provides gap financing for multifamily affordable housing development in areas that we do see a job center or we do see access to transit in a regular and reliable way.”

The full picture of food insecurity in Kentucky is large and includes all demographics and areas of the state. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles says that there is a lack of awareness about just how many Kentuckians are food insecure.

“A lot of people don’t know how big of a deal food insecurity is in Kentucky,” Quarles said. “One in six Kentuckians and one in five Kentucky schoolchildren are considered food insecure.”

Quarles says that it is not just a problem in urban areas but also in rural communities, and that food insecurity is not just a problem that impacts low-income populations.

“It’s important to realize the face of hunger is very complex,” Quarles said. “There are two age groups that are very vulnerable – children and the elderly. But, a lot of times hunger in Kentucky is the result of transitory poverty, people may have a temporary job loss, they’re between jobs. So there are a lot of factors that relate to hunger that a lot of folks may not realize, and it’s not just about low income.”

That is true within Jefferson County as well. Zawacki explains that they see food insecurity impacting people from across all income levels.

“There are certainly a concentration of folks who are living in lower income brackets in west Louisville and south central Louisville,” Zawacki said. “But, we certainly see that across the spectrum within our Jefferson County Public Schools. There are folks of every demographic experiencing food insecurity.”

While Zawacki and Louisville Forward are focused on policy initiatives to address food insecurity within the city, there are statewide policies that Quarles and his office help to implement that benefit communities across the state, such as the Farms to Food Banks program.

Last year, Quarles supported two pieces of legislation that would help address food insecurity.

The first was House Bill 214, which would have doubled the tax incentive farmers receive through the Farms to Food Banks program from 10 percent to 20 percent. That bill did not make it out of committee and Quarles says that for now, with tax reform up in the air, that bill was put on hold.

The other piece of legislation, House Bill 237, was signed into law and gives food immunity to grocery stores that donate.

Some food vendors may not make donations out of fear of being held liable if somebody gets sick from donated food. What many vendors don’t know is that a law passed in 1996 protects good faith donations from civil and criminal liability. The law is called The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and it specifically protects individuals, corporations, wholesalers, caterers, farmers, restaurateurs, and others from liability.

HB 237 is essentially a reinforcement of the federal law.

“One thing we learned this past year, that there are some grocery stores who want to donate but they were fearful of being sued on the back end of donation” Quarles said. “And so this bill actually provided legal immunity and prevented frivolous lawsuits. “

Going forward on the state level, Quarles is looking at addressing the confusion over “best by,” “sell by” and “use by” dates on food. As Quarles explains, those dates can be misleading and cause consumers to throw out perfectly good food.

“A lot of times, we are looking at confusion in the market place. And, we are actually working with our federal delegation and also our grocery stores right here in Kentucky, on a volunteer basis, to see if they can change the language that is used on cartons or packaging of food to help prevent people from throwing it away,” Quarles said. “But also allow those donating to accept food that may be in a can that is perfectly edible.”

Zawacki outlined several policy solutions to food insecurity that have been implemented in other states and cities.

New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland have each participated in property tax-based incentives to help bring grocery stores into food deserts. Zawacki explains that building a new grocery store can be extremely costly, so in order to get stores into areas of need, the property tax incentive helps offset those associated with building a new grocery store if they locate in a food desert.

“When you look at a new grocery store, you can be looking in the several million dollar range to be able to build it and stock it and outfit it with all of the things it needs,” Zawacki said. “And so, to have the ability to offset some of the property taxes associated with the increase in value in building that store, can be an incentive to stores to locate in areas where they may fear that their profit margins will be very small because of the income demographics in the area.”

In Baltimore, a program partners libraries with grocery stores and allows people to order online and then pick up their orders at the library. Zawacki explains that this program addresses a drawback of using SNAP benefits to buy groceries.

“It’s also unique that it addresses a gap in the payment system,” Zawacki said. “So if you are paying with your debit card or your credit card online you can do that, and order groceries and you can get them delivered in many circumstances. But, if you are paying with SNAP benefits you cannot pay online you can only pay in person. And so the Baltimore library model is unique in that it addresses inability to pay online with their SNAP benefits.”

In Jefferson County, Louisville Forward is looking at various options, including the creation of an online ordering platform and initiatives within the Jefferson County Public Schools system that would place local food into schools.

While Zawacki touched on possible initiatives, she was hesitant to go into too much detail because researching and implementing new programs takes time.

“It’s very preliminary at this point, and so I don’t want to go too far down the road,” Zawacki said. “But, I will tell you that we are constantly looking at opportunities to address food insecurity and hunger in this community.”

One project in the works that Louisville Forward supports is a community cooperative in Louisville that is located in an area that struggles with access to food.

A cooperative grocery store is owned by members who then elect others to serve on a board of directors. That board then makes decisions related to the store, including stocking, pricing and staffing.

“It gives folks an opportunity to buy into a model that they control,” Zawacki explained. “As opposed to going to a grocery store and finding the things that the grocery store has made available, through a cooperative structure, people have the ability to find fair prices, fair trade or otherwise sustainably sourced items in a model that is controlled by the shareholders.”

One statewide effort that Quarles says they are working on is a tech driven solution that can help address issues of transportation and logistics. The Department of Agriculture is partnering with IBM Watson to help increase the efficiency of getting food from those who want to donate to those who need it.

Additionally, back in 2016, Quarles launched the Kentucky Hunger Initiative in order to address unique issues throughout the state that cause food insecurity.

Quarles acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to food insecurity, and a program that works in one community may not be as effective in another.

“Kentucky is a very regional state,” Quarles said. “What works in eastern Kentucky may not work in downtown Louisville, and vice versa.”


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