June 12, 2020

Gillibrand Joins Call To Eliminate Food Deserts And Address Food Insecurity During Coronavirus Pandemic

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, joined more than 20 Senate colleagues in calling on the Trump administration to prioritize programs to improve access to nutritious, affordable food as low-income and communities of color are disproportionately affected by food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis. In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Gillibrand and her colleagues expressed concern about how limited access to nutritious affordable food is hurting low-income communities and communities of color during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“In the midst of this historic economic crisis, people are struggling to put nutritious food on the table. A family’s zip code should not be a barrier to accessing programs that keep New Yorkers fed,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Low-income communities and communities of color face systemic disadvantages to food access. It’s critical that the administration address these issues and prioritize programs that will help put food on the tables of those who need it the most. No one in America should worry about where their next meal is coming from, especially during a public health crisis.” 

Low-income Americans and people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with fewer healthy food options, and studies have shown that a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is limited access to a grocery store. Millions of New Yorkers live in food deserts where the absence of a grocery store within one mile of their home makes it more difficult to purchase fresh, healthy, and nutritious food. Additionally, individuals in rural areas of the state may have to travel several miles to the nearest grocer. Many of these communities are the same areas that face a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions — including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes — and rely on public transit or ride shares to access food, compounding their potential exposure to the virus. To address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on these communities, Gillibrand and her colleagues pushed Secretary Perdue to identify and prioritize programs at the USDA that would provide access to nutritious, affordable food to communities living in food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Full text of the letter can be found here and below.

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Dear Secretary Perdue: 

We write to express concerns about how a lack of access to healthy, affordable food is hurting low-income communities and communities of color during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To help address the disproportionate impact of the virus on these communities, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs at the Department of Agriculture intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Initial research has identified several factors contributing to the disproportionate adverse health outcomes for low-income and communities of color during the pandemic, including a lack of access to health care services, a higher incidence of pre-existing conditions, and a greater likelihood of working in a front line job. Several of these factors are exacerbated by lack of access to healthy, affordable food.

Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert where the absence of a grocery store within one mile of their home makes it more difficult to purchase fresh, healthy, and nutritious food. Additionally, in some of the more rural regions of the country, individuals may have to travel further than 10 miles to the nearest grocer. Low-income Americans and people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, and studies have shown that a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is limited access to a grocery store. Consequently, many in these communities are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, many people in these neighborhoods do not have access to food or meal delivery services and must rely on public transportation or shared rides to purchase healthy food, increasing their potential exposure to the virus.

To combat this public health crisis, we need a proactive approach that emphasizes the prevention of underlying health conditions and minimizes potential exposure to the virus while traveling to purchase food by expanding healthy food options in low-income communities and communities of color. Congress has provided the Department of Agriculture authority and funding to address the prevalence of food deserts and to support local food systems through such programs as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, the Local Agriculture Market Program, and the Urban Agriculture Program. Additionally, Rural Development has several business and industry loan guarantee and community facilities grant programs that can be applied to food development projects in underserved food desert areas. 

As part of a comprehensive response to the coronavirus pandemic, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Sincerely,