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Illinois Grocery Initiative Gives $20M to Filling Food Deserts

About 3.3 million state residents live in an area considered to be a food desert by USDA guidelines. Nationally, 17.4 percent of the population has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

Hidden among the stretch of lush, green fields between central Pike County and northwest Morgan County, Ill., is a desert.

Not a barren, hostile-to-life area often associated with the word, but a "food desert," where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited.

These deserts dot census tracts across west-central Illinois. Some are slivers — like those in sections of Cass County, Jacksonville and South Jacksonville — while others are larger, dotting parts of Greene, Schuyler, Sangamon and Pike counties.

More than a quarter of Illinois residents — about 3.3 million people — live in an area USDA guidelines consider a food desert.

It's something state lawmakers want to change. They have created the Illinois Grocery Initiative, which was signed into law last week by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Through it, $20 million will be dedicated with the hope of offering incentives to encourage opening new grocery stores in under-served areas.

Income is just one measure the USDA uses to designate food deserts. It also factors lack of transportation and proximity into the equation. If at least 33 percent of a census tract's population is more than a half-mile from a grocery store in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas, it is labeled as a food desert.

Nationwide, the USDA says those criteria put 53.6 million people — 17.4 percent of the population — at a disadvantage for accessing food.

"With limited or no access to food retailers or supermarkets that stock fresh produce, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and other healthy foods, these populations may be more likely to suffer from high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity," according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report "The Public Health Effect of Food Deserts." "One serious health consequence of living in food deserts is, ironically, obesity. Without ready access to nutritious foods, people living in food deserts often have diets that are high in calories but low in nutritional value."

State Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D- Arlington Heights, was a chief sponsor of the act. She said food deserts also contribute to an "increased frequency of anxiety and depression."

Saying food deserts can limit economic growth, Canty said that, "by making serious investments in small businesses, we will combat these debilitating problems while helping businesses across the state flourish."

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will begin the process by commissioning a study to look at historical disparities, geographic trends and potential solutions.

The state will provide support to government entities and independent grocers through such things as technical assistance, feasibility studies, tax exemptions and access to funding for land, facilities or equipment.

"Nobody should have to drive hours to access healthy produce and the Illinois Grocery Initiative will provide reliable food access to families living in food deserts," according to Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Kristin Richards.

Pritzker said the initiative is a "holistic approach to ensuring Illinois families can reach the big building blocks of a good life."

"When our residents struggle to keep a roof over their head, can't put food on the table, or have to choose between paying for basic medical care and keeping the lights on — that's a failure of the system," he said.

(c)2023 the Jacksonville Journal-Courier (Jacksonville, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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