Insightful Viewpoint: How the USDA Can Address the Food Desert Issue

Four Walmart stores closed in Chicago last month, creating huge gaps in a food market that was already thin. This disturbing news is part a larger trend that’s disconcerting. We witnessed the closure of an Aldi in Auburn Gresham last year. These closures have a significant impact on our communities where residents depend on these stores to meet their nutritional needs.

Illinois is in a predicament that contrasts with its fertile soil and the Great Lakes natural reserve, which holds around 20% of freshwater on the surface of the earth. This abundance creates the impression of a land that is ripe for food security and agricultural prosperity. A paradox is unfolding within our borders. We are facing a food crisis despite our abundance of natural resources.

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The term “food-desert” describes a reality in which, despite the fact that we live in a state with abundant agricultural resources, many of our residents do not have easy access to nutritious, fresh food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Illinois Department of Public Health one out of four Illinois residents lives in a “food desert”. This shocking statistic is a disturbing reality that impacts health outcomes, academic performances and quality of life.

While food deserts are often associated with cities, they do not only exist in urban areas. The closing of a Walmart store in southern Illinois (part of U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski’s district) highlighted the growing problem rural food deserts. Residents often have to travel more than 10 miles to get to a grocery. It is urgent to address the lack of grocery stores in rural and urban areas, as well as the dearth of healthy food options.

Illinois launched its own initiatives in response to the crisis. The “Grocery Initiative” (Senate Bill 850) is being developed by Governor J.B. Pritzker, state legislators and others to study food deserts in the state. Grants will be provided for new or existing grocery shops located there. This is a great step but state efforts cannot solve the problem. The federal government must match the urgency with funding and support that matches this situation.

Budzinski, along with myself, felt this urgency and wrote a letter jointly to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack. We asked him to prioritise combating food deserts as well as invest more resources in our communities. The USDA can be a key player in this effort, by investing in programs such as the Healthy Food Finance Initiative, which increases access to healthy food in underserved communities, and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program which encourages low-income families to purchase fruits and vegetables. To ensure that our collective effort to combat food desertion is successful, we must maximize the funding for these programs.

Fighting food deserts means more than just ensuring that all Illinoisans have access to food. It’s also about improving health, equity, and the quality of life for Illinois residents. We urge all stakeholders, as we work to resolve this crisis together, to acknowledge the urgency of this problem and join our efforts. We must ensure that every American, no matter their ZIP code has access to nutrition to live a healthy and prosperous life.

Jonathan L. Jackson represents the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st District.