National Convening Builds Toward Equitable Food System

By Jenny Rempel

On March 20-21, less than two months after the farm bill authorized a Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), HFFI stakeholders gathered in Washington, DC, for the Third National Conversation on Improving Access to Healthy Food. This HFFI Convening attracted nearly 150 attendees, demonstrating the excitement and momentum behind the HFFI program, which creates jobs, spurs economic activity, and increases access to healthy food in low-income communities and communities of color.Girl Selecting Tomatoes

The Convening brought together HFFI stakeholders, including federal agency representatives, current HFFI grantees, funders, and community leaders, providing the opportunity to share best practices, discuss project challenges, and educate policymakers about grantees’ work. PolicyLink, The Food Trust, and The Reinvestment Fund, which jointly organized the Convening, have been working together for more than five years to build support for a comprehensive federal response to address the limited and inequitable access to healthy foods in low-income communities.

With well over 100 HFFI projects throughout the country, grantee stories shared at the HFFI Convening demonstrated the diversity and creativity of HFFI projects. For instance, in two low-supermarket-access urban neighborhoods in Kansas and Missouri, the Argentine Neighborhood Development Association and IFF have used HFFI grants to finance new grocery stores. Coastal Enterprises, Inc. has funded five healthy food retailers in rural New England, ranging from a rural local foods store to a food hub and farmers’ market. In Cleveland, the Green City Growers Cooperative is using HFFI funds to create 42 living-wage jobs to maintain, pack, and distribute food grown in its 3.25-acre hydroponic urban greenhouse. In the Tohono O’odham Nation, Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is using HFFI funds to launch Desert Rain Food Services, a social enterprise to meet the needs of the Tohono O’odham tribe in Southern Arizona by providing healthy, traditional, and locally grown meals for school and institutional customers. Texas Certified Development Company used HFFI funds to support Salud Corporation, a Latina-led start-up that manufactures and distributes high-quality extra virgin olive oil to replace unhealthy cooking lard. In Missouri, the St. Louis Food Hub, which anticipates creating over 100 jobs, aggregates, processes, wholesales, retails, and distributes healthy, local foods to meet the needs of small- to medium-sized farmers and to increase access to healthy food options in a low-access urban area. You can see more innovative HFFI projects here.

Since 2011, more than $109 million in HFFI grants has been distributed to community development corporations and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to support over 100 projects in 26 states. With the passage of the farm bill this past February, this interagency program may find itself a new home at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. In a plenary panel with the Departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services, and USDA, it was great to hear Katharine Ferguson, Chief of Staff for Rural Development at the USDA, reflect that “USDA is thrilled to be at the HFFI table and part of the HFFI club. We will prioritize this, especially if there’s money.”

Prioritizing is right. With nearly 30 million Americans without access to healthy food, HFFI is a crucial step toward building a more equitable food system throughout the U.S. The Convening showed great momentum and passion for HFFI, perfect for what lies ahead for the initiative, the critical process of appropriation and implementation.

To access proceedings from the Convening, see here. To learn more about HFFI see here, and to sign up for HFFI updates click here.

Jenny Rempel is a Emerson National Hunger Fellow assisting with healthy food access efforts at PolicyLink.

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