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Bill aims to ‘fill the food gap’

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) introduced a bill this month that would incentivize grocers and nonprofits to “fill the food gap” for the 39 million Americans who live in a food desert, including those who suffer with food insecurity locally.

Warner’s Healthy Food Access for All Americans (HFAAA) Act aims to expand access to affordable and nutritious food in areas designated as food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The most recent USDA data obtained in 2017 estimates an approximate 10,052 Cumberland County residents exist in a food desert as well as 8,400 Buckingham residents and 10,624 Prince Edward residents.

“Today, too many Americans lack access to fresh, nutritious and healthy foods. Unfortunately, that reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, which has made it even more difficult for working families to seek out and afford healthy foods,” Warner said in a Feb. 3 press release about the bill. “That’s why I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan bill that will serve as an important tool to combat food insecurity in our communities.”

The HFAAA Act, according to the release, would provide incentives to food providers in order to expand access to healthy foods to underserved populations by granting tax credits or grants to food providers who service low-access communities and attain a “Special Access Food Provider” (SAFP) certification through the Treasury Department.

Incentives, according to a release, would be awarded based on the following structure:

• New Store Construction — Companies that construct new grocery stores in a food desert will receive a one-time 15%  tax credit after receiving certification.

• Retrofitting Existing Structures — Companies that make retrofits to an existing store’s healthy food sections can receive a one-time 10% tax credit after the repairs certify the store as an SAFP.

• Food Banks — Certified food banks that build new (permanent) structures in food deserts will be eligible to receive a one-time grant for 15% of their construction costs.

• Temporary Access Merchants — Certified temporary access merchants (i.e. mobile markets, farmers markets, and some food banks) that are 501(c)(3)s will receive grants for 10% of their annual operating costs.

Cumberland County Administrator Don Unmussig said he believes the legislation could be a good opportunity for the community.

In a Wednesday, Feb. 17, statement on the bill, Unmussig said he has tracked years of attempts by himself and other previous/current elected county officials who have contacted all known grocery store chains to try to bring stores to the county.

“They all state that we are not large enough for them to come and build a store in Cumberland,” Unmussig said.

He said while the bill may not bring a large grocery chain to Cumberland County, it could function as an opportunity for an entrepreneur to open a small grocery store in Cumberland.

“I think our citizens would love to see a large grocery store chain come to the courthouse area, but as we have been told time and time again, we don’t have the volume here for them to be profitable, and they would not be able to sustain here for very long, so they won’t take the risk on us.

“I am in support of this bill and hopeful that if it is passed an entrepreneur will step up for the citizens in this county,” he added. “The 40-plus mile round trip to Food Lion is getting old.”

According to Warner Press Secretary Nelly Decker, the legislation was formally introduced in the Senate on Feb. 3 and currently awaits action in the Senate Finance Committee, the committee of jurisdiction.