State lawmakers in Richmond now have a name for counties like Rappahannock that for one reason or another have no sizable and affordable grocery store: “Food deserts.”
Jessica Wetzler, of the Capital News Service, writes of a bipartisan group of public officials who are urging the General Assembly to create a Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to help attract supermarkets to “food deserts” in the state.
Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe included $7.5 million in his proposed 2018-20 budget to establish the grocery fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development, she reports.
While Rappahannock County is often described as affluent, which is certainly accurate when compared to other rural counties in the state, there’s a separate story to tell about the percentage of poor who live here who like everybody else have to travel a long distance to find a variety of groceries that are affordable.
Sen. Bill Stanley, Franklin Republican, and Sen. Rosalyn Dance, Petersburg Democrat, have joined to sponsor SB 37, which would provide funding to build or expand grocery stories in underserved communities.
“I have carried many bills,” Stanley said, “but [none] as important as this one.”
In the House, HB 85 is being sponsored by Dels. Dickie Bell, Staunton Republican, and Delores McQuinn, Richmond Democrat.
“It’s 2018, terms like ‘food desert’ should not be part of our vocabulary, but it is,” Bell said. “We should not have hungry Virginians, but we do.”
More than 1.7 million Virginians, including 480,000 children, live in low-income areas with limited supermarket access, Wetzler reports. These areas are often called food deserts — communities where residents are unable to access fresh produce, lean meats and other nutritious food.
“It’s not a political issue, it’s a human issue,” Stanley noted.
As this newspaper revealed last summer, Rappahannock has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the United States, ranking an astonishing 64th among the entire 3,084 jurisdictions (counties and county equivalents) in the United States.
According to federal and state figures, Rappahannock households in the top 1 percent income bracket earn 33 times that of households in the bottom 1 percent — a persistent problem cited by lower-income residents across the country, as it drives up local costs.
At the same time, Rappahannock has the highest poverty rate — 10 percent — in Virginia’s northern Piedmont region, with an even higher poverty rate for children at more than 16 percent.
Through the fund, private-public partnerships leveraging state dollars with private money will be made to provide one-time, low-interest loans or small grants. The objective is to encourage such food retailers as grocery stores or innovative food retail projects to open or renovate markets in underserved communities. Supporters say that would also provide new jobs.
An argument often heard in Rappahannock County is that its population of just over 7,000 people is too small to support a large grocery, which is why one no longer exists. Others will tell you that a majority of Rappahannock residents are opposed to any larger grocery store setting up shop in the county.
But an “innovative food retail project,” as is being discussed in Richmond, might not be a stretch for Rappahannock County.
The investment fund would have a goal of working with more than 15 healthy food retail projects, with an average of 40 new and retained jobs per grocery store, Wetzler reports.
“We’ve worked for four years to expand food access across Virginia, and this legislation will move us forward,” former Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe said on Twitter.
“It’s a right for all Virginians and Americans.”