BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – Large grocery store chains are far from addressing the need for fresh foods in areas of Alabama known as food deserts according to federal food stamp data, a problem lawmakers started to address this year by creating an incentive program to attract grocers to those areas.
But the program hasn’t been funded, something advocates are working to change.
An Associated Press analysis found that of 73 large grocery stores that opened in Alabama between 2011 and the beginning of 2015, 11 opened in areas that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a food desert – or an area with limited access to supermarkets that is home to a relatively high number of low-income residents.
More than 1.8 million Alabama residents live in areas with no grocery stores, according to a 2015 report by The Food Trust, the Alabama Grocer’s Association and VOICES for Alabama’s Children.
Some grocery store chains had promised to open locations in underserved areas across the country by 2016 as part of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a national anti-obesity initiative affiliated with first lady Michelle Obama.
Montgomery-based Calhoun Foods joined the Partnership for a Healthier America and in 2010 pledged to open 10 stores in or near food deserts by 2016. The family-owned chain hasn’t reported any progress toward its goal and is no longer considered a participant in the campaign. The company closed a Montgomery store in June; Calhoun Enterprises President and CEO Greg Calhoun told local media the business wasn’t profitable and the industry had become increasingly competitive.
According to the federal data, 156 Alabama census tracts are considered food deserts, and 41 of them are in Jefferson County. Publix, Winn-Dixie, Piggly Wiggly, Cash Saver, Aldi, Save-a-Lot and Food Giant have opened stores in food deserts in Jefferson, Mobile, Montgomery and Lowndes counties, among others.
The Alabama Legislature passed the Healthy Food Financing Act in 2015 to incentivize grocers to open or expand stores to widen access to healthy foods. The financing program administered by the Alabama Department of Community and Economic Affairs is expected to offer grocers federal, state and private grants, loans or tax credits.
No state funding was allocated for the program in the current budget year, Alabama Department of Community and Economic Affairs spokesman Mike Presley said in an email. The department’s Community and Economic Development Division will oversee the program as resources become available.
VOICES for Alabama’s Children Campaign Manager Jada Shaffer said advocates are working with private foundations, state and local leaders to gather funding, but none has been secured yet.
Alabama Grocers Association President Ellie Taylor has said she hopes to see the program start with $5 million in funding for its first year and expand from there.
Several other states run similar incentive programs including Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Those programs began with between $7 million and $10 million in seed funding according to The Food Trust’s report.