March 25, 2010
Maryland House Bill 1135, the Grocery Store Property Tax Credit Bill, passed the House yesterday with 138-0 votes! The bill grants a property tax credit to grocery stores throughout the state located in low-income areas. Delegate Justin Ross, the main sponsor of the bill, represents Prince George’s County, an urban county surrounding Washington, DC. Delegate Ross clearly sees the need for attracting new and better grocery stores into low income areas, especially low income urban areas, to help provide better access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables (the bill stipulates that a grocery store is defined as entity where “at least 20% of the gross receipts of which are 3% derived from the retail sale of fresh produce”).
The lack of quality supermarkets and groceries in low income areas has been receiving much greater attention recently. And these underserved areas are being referred to as “food deserts.” While there is no strict definition of a food desert, the term generally mean areas that do not have easy access (within walking distance in cities or a reasonable driving distance in rural areas) to a supermarket, notably the most reliable and most utilized source for healthy foods. The USDA’s Economic Research Service just published an article on food deserts in their March Amber Waves magazine. The concern comes from a greater appreciation of the role access to healthy foods plays in one’s diet. It is not enough to recommend that people eat “5 a Day” and educate people about how to shop for healthy foods and prepare them. This will do little good if people don’t have access to the recommended foods. We at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) are excited by the recent attention that the “food environment” is receiving (for a detailed examination see Policy Link study).
The issue has come to the attention of local government officials as well – in 2008 former Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon created the Baltimore Food Policy Task Force, of which CLF’s Anne Palmer was an active member. The Task Force’s report lists 10 recommendations to improve access; however, many of these recommendations have short-term impact and rely on alternative and seasonal sources for produce. People need access to healthy food year round, again which can be most reliably found at supermarkets and grocery stores. The Task Force recognized the lack of quality supermarkets in the city, but also recognized that the solution to the problem was long-term and they were tasked with looking for short-term, actionable recommendations. HB 1135 is perhaps one long-term solution to attracting the kind of supermarkets Baltimore needs (and that are needed in other low income areas in Maryland). The bill also leaves room for both large chain supermarkets and smaller grocery stores (even corner stores?!) to qualify as a “grocery” – if they can prove that their primary business is selling food at retail and that 20% of their profits come from produce. This flexibility could prove useful in finding creative solutions to food deserts, in that large, chain supermarkets may not be the answer for all locations.
I gave testimony in support of this bill on April 11th. It was a long day at the hearing, as two major bills were heard first – the Millionaire’s Tax Sunset Repeal and the so-called “Dime a Drink” Alcohol Tax bill. Finally, at 6:30 pm, our bill was called. Luckily, the delegates were still engaged enough to ask questions. The basic gist of my testimony was that from our research on the food environment in Baltimore City, there are in fact food deserts in Baltimore. We created a food desert map as part of the MD Food System Mapping Project that I manage. Our definition of a food desert is a block group where 40% or more of the population’s household income is at or below $25,000 annually AND there is no supermarket within ¼ mile. We used this shorter distance (typically studies consider a 1 mile distance) because this is what planners use to determine access to public transportation – in other words, it’s the distance people are willing to walk for public transportation! Considering the fact that the people living in these low income areas likely don’t own or have access to a vehicle, we felt ¼ mile is an appropriate walking distance. Add in the fact that they will be carrying groceries home from a supermarket, it seems all the more appropriate. The Ways and Means Committee received a copy of this map with my testimony, which I hope helped further their understanding of the food environment and the importance of access to healthy foods. Let’s hope it passes the Senate next!
NOTE: This is our first attempt at defining and illustrating food deserts in Baltimore. We feel that the total food environment should be considered, including convenience stores, corner stores, fast food restaurants, farmers markets, and community gardens. We have collected data on these locations in our mapping project, but are still working on developing a more complex definition of a food desert that takes them into account. (PDF maps from the project will be posted on the CLF website by mid April). I welcome any ideas, references or suggestions!
– Amanda Behrens