By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: August 7, 2019 | 3:15 p.m.
Congressman leads bi-partisan effort to increase healthy food access
SURRY – For some, the conversations had around their kitchen tables in the evenings over dinner can center around traditional concepts, like the economy, jobs, and taxes. For others, that conversation can center around what it takes to put food on said kitchen table as food insecurity and lack of access to nourishing and nutritious food remains an important topic for those living across the country.
Within the Fourth Congressional District, represented by Donald McEachin (D), comprised of a diverse mix of urban centers, suburban neighborhoods, and rural communities, the issue of access to food transcends geography and, during a stop in Surry County Saturday morning, the congressman was able to listen to residents from rural Southeastern Virginia provide their perspectives that are likely shared by many others across where attaining fresh produce or visiting a grocery store can be challenging.
McEachin’s visit to Surry was part of his “Coffee with Your Congressman” series, which provided a causal town hall-style forum for several dozen people to engage in a dialogue with McEachin and his staff.
While some broader topics were brought up during Saturday’s forum, including questions about the congressman’s stance regarding impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and his thoughts on economic policies, a majority of the roughly hour-long forum was focused on discussing McEachin’s efforts to eradicate food deserts and listening to constituents from a variety of backgrounds share their thoughts – ranging from local leaders, business owners, farmers, and residents.
For the congressman, the topic of food deserts, which are portions of America that are devoid of fruits and vegetables due to a lack of retail or market options, was a central focus of his campaign and his legislative efforts in Washington, seeking to address food access issues both in urban and rural communities. In March, the congressman introduced a bill, known as the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, seeking to incentive food service providers like grocers, retailers, and nonprofit organizations to help eliminate food deserts.
According to data provided by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) alongside a companion Senate bill, the number of people living in food deserts as defined in the senator’s bill is significant, with over 1 million Virginians being affected based on 2015 metrics from the USDA. When drilling down into the numbers and honing in on Southside Virginia, nearly 6,000 of Dinwiddie County’s 28,529 residents, roughly 8,500 of Prince George County’s 38,000 locals, and over 6,300 of Sussex’s over 11,200 residents live within a food desert, where traveling to a store or farmers market can result in a drive of at least ten miles or more.
While data for Surry wasn’t available in information provided by Warner’s office or from the USDA, the story of food access in the county goes beyond numbers on a piece of paper into real life as Surry has struggled to get a grocery store to locate in the county, with the county’s geography – having much of its population centers spread across the locality’s four corners – seemingly presenting a challenge to retailers who require certain metrics to make the business venture of a store fortuitous for its operators.
McEachin’s bill, along with the companion Senate legislation, seeks to provide incentives for those businesses to set up shop in communities where food deserts exist, with, if signed into law, companies who build new stores in food deserts being eligible for a one-time 15 percent tax credit toward the project’s plan and construction after they are certified as a “Special Access Food Provider.” Existing stores would also be eligible for tax credits toward improvements to their healthy food sections, along with food banks that build new permanent structures in food deserts.
While the conversation was hosted in Surry Saturday morning, the legislation introduced by McEachin and Warner will have reverberations across Southside Virginia and the Commonwealth, if passed, helping to provide an avenue for communities to attract grocers to their communities and improve access to fresh food and produce.
During his time with residents, he explained it was the community itself that helped him bring this legislation to the House after listening to their concerns during his time on the campaign trail and sees these conversations as valuable in his efforts to champion legislation in Washington.
“I always go to a community meeting like this and come away with new thoughts or perspectives,” he shared. “The idea of food deserts came out of meetings like this on the campaign trail, so this is a good thing to do. Washington doesn’t have all the answers. There are a lot of answers, but it doesn’t have all of the answers. Communities are where you find your best answers.”
While food deserts were the focus of his discussion last Saturday, his efforts walk in unison with trying to address poverty in the Congressional Fourth District and America as a whole.
“The biggest thing, in my judgment, is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024,” McEachin remarked. “The reason we did a gradual increase in the minimum wage is because the studies show that you don’t have the job loss followed by an instant increase in the minimum wage. So, we are hopefully putting more money in the pockets of Americans to help with situational poverty.”
He added he is actively working to protect against cuts to the USDA’s free and reduced lunch program, with reports showing nearly 500,000 children could lose access to the program that provides them with nutritious meals while at school at no or a reduced charge.
“We are trying to ensure that poor folks have a chance to get out of poverty and succeed,” McEachin said.
When it comes to coordinating efforts to eliminate food deserts locally, be it through developing plans to attract a grocer to the community, organizing a farmers market that brings local producers together with local consumers, or opening a food bank that helps provide access to fresh food, Felicia Bailey, a Surry business owner shared her wisdom that goes beyond the county’s borders – these ventures can only be successful if the community rallies behind them and keeps their dollars local.
“The mindset of shopping local is what people will have to change,” she shared. “When people choose to go other places and shop, you’re building other people’s communities up. So when you choose to say, you don’t want to go to the dollar store or the hardware store in Surry, you are taking your tax dollars and your money and giving it to other people’s communities and schools to work.”
“If you don’t leave that money here in the community, you are supporting other people’s communities,” she closed.
As Surry, like many communities, faces the reality of coming up with innovative solutions for bringing fresh food and produce to their residents, new projects give hope to locals that they will soon have a grocery store of their own and save them trips to Wakefield or Smithfield for groceries as efforts are underway to potentially renovate the former Surry Hardware store into some form of a grocery store.
According to county officials, officials with Wakefield’s Great Valu grocery store have been brought to the table as part of the discussion as, if a store were to open in Surry, it likely would draw Surry shoppers from the Wakefield store’s aisles.
In addition, the county continues to work to grow its farmers market, which has garnered support from McEachin as they pursue funding for the venture to elevate its profile in the community.
When asked about the status of his House bill addressing food deserts, McEachin said he hopes the bill will move through the House of Representatives by the end of the year.
The congressman wrapped up his “For the People” constituent conversations in Emporia on August 7, following similar forums in Petersburg and Chesapeake. During his stop in Surry Saturday, he also donated nearly three dozen books to the county’s local library.