General Assembly Must Reconsider Corner Store Initiative
Agricultural science has exponentially increased crop yields and decreased food prices, yet food insecurity — the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food — persists. North Carolina ranks as the eighth most agriculturally productive state in the United States, yet one in four children across the state struggle with food insecurity, according to The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation.
Many of these children live in “food deserts” — low-income areas characterized by lack of access to healthy food. The United States Department of Agriculture identified 349 food deserts in North Carolina. The USDA classifies food deserts by how far away residents live from a grocery store (at least 10 miles) and what percentage of residents live below the poverty line (at least 20 percent).
Without grocery stores nearby, many residents frequent convenience stores or corner stores instead. These most often offer fewer healthy options: research indicates that in eastern North Carolina’s Pitt County, the most commonly purchased items at corner stores are alcohol and cigarettes, followed by snack foods.
Frequent consumption of snack foods low in energy density and the scarcity of nutritious alternatives drive the obesity epidemic, which disproportionately affects the rural South. North Carolina ranks seventh nationally for obesity in teens and 16th for adults. In Pitt County alone, nearly 73 percent of adults and over 33 percent of children are obese.
While obesity is a complex issue, access to healthy food is a crucial component of promoting public health.
Nationally, recent policies to address food insecurity and obesity have promoted nutritious food in corner stores, in addition to the usual snack items. However, produce at corner stores is often expensive, so cheaper options are necessary for healthier food to be accessible to all customers.
In June 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly signed House Bill 1030 into law, formalizing prior discussions about “healthy corner store interventions” in North Carolina. The bill included $250,000 in funding for a pilot version of the Healthy Food Small Retailer Program. To encourage produce sales, the HFSRP reimburses owners of corner stores in food deserts for purchases they make related to refrigeration or food stocking equipment. Participating store owners must be willing to accept vouchers for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Women, Infants, and Children benefits. Researchers have been evaluating the program since its inception, with a special focus on piloting the program in Pitt County.
Under the $250,000 HFSRP, small food retailers who apply can receive up to $5,000 for purchasing and installing refrigeration, display, or other necessary equipment for stocking nutrient-dense foods. They can receive up to $100 “to offset initial expenses related to participating in food desert relief efforts.” Store owners can also receive up to $1,500 in funds to support nutrition education, employee hiring, or technical and business assistance in promoting healthy eating.
In March 2017, North Carolina state Representatives Yvonne Lewis Holley (D-Wake), Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth), Pat McElraft (R-Carteret and Jones), and Amos Quick (D-Guilford) sponsored HB 387, the “Corner Store Initiative.” The new bill called for one million dollars in recurring funding to the HFSRP and expanding it into a statewide Healthy Corner Store Initiative (HCSI). The bill highlights the national obesity epidemic as the primary motivator behind public funding for healthy corner store initiatives.
Despite years of bipartisan support, HB 387 stalled in the House Agriculture Committee in April 2017. The next month, the Senate debated funding the HFSRP and whether the amount allocated should be $200,000 or $1 million. They came to no decision.
North Carolina is the tenth most food insecure state in the country. The HFSRP has potential to decrease this food insecurity crisis, but the program needs continued funding to showcase this potential. It is crucial that the state invests in bipartisan policy interventions such as the HFSRP to address these crises.
In today’s political climate, it is rare for policy to be clear, effective, and supported by Republicans and Democrats in unison. The HFSRP meets those criteria. Let’s not lose out on this opportunity to work both across the aisle and across the urban-rural divide to address hunger in North Carolina. The Corner Store Initiative bill should stall in committee no longer.
The HFSRP needs renewed attention and full funding. In the face of over 1.5 million hungry people in North Carolina, food security policy must be at the top of our agenda.