Friday, February 19, 2010

Let's Move to Eliminate Food Deserts: Michelle Obama, Vilsack & Geithner Visit Philadelphia

More than a child obesity campaign: Let's Move is about correcting historic, racially biased disparities in food access
First Lady Michelle Obama
caused shouts of excitement from shoppers when she visited Fresh Grocer, a market in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia today. The shoppers chanted "we love you" as Mrs. Obama entered the market shortly before noon, accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

The Secretaries went largely unnoticed; of course it was Mrs. Obama who caused the most delight among the shoppers, many of whom had stood in line for hours to meet her. The First Lady reached across a rack of baked goods to shake hands with the crowd, and it was a very symbolic moment, because Mrs. Obama's trip is intended to highlight the need for healthy food to be more affordable and accessible. Eliminating food deserts is a critical part of Let's Move, her campaign to end child obesity, and she's pledged to do it within seven years.

Today's trip was to officially launch the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a component of Let's Move that will make $400 million available for projects that improve food access; efforts will include developing and equipping grocery stores and other small businesses and retailers selling healthy food in communities that currently lack these choices. The monetary allotment is part of President Obama's FY 2011 budget, and pools funding from the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture--thus the presence of Secs. Vilsack and Geithner today.

The 46,000-square-foot Fresh Grocer is a $15 million project that opened last December, in order to boost local access to healthy food. The neighborhood it's located in has about a 25% poverty rate, and the market was funded with a unique financing partnership between state and private entities. Fresh Grocer owner and chief executive officer Patrick Burns gave Mrs. Obama a tour of the well-stocked aisles of the market, and she greeted workers as they walked.

“You guys are great,” she said.

Speaking to a crowd of shoppers, Mrs. Obama said that one in three children in the United States is overweight or obese. More and more children are showing up in pediatricians’ offices with high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, she said. (Above: Mrs. Obama greeting excited shoppers)

Those kids and their families need the kind of access to healthier foods that Fresh Grocer provides. Among the offerings at the market is a fresh fruit smoothie station, and Mrs. Obama ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie--and paid for it.

“I have my own money,” Mrs. Obama said, and presented the cashier with a $20 bill.

Fresh Grocer was built with funding from Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The FFFI, in partnership with the state, the Reinvestment Fund and the Food Trust -- both nonprofits in Philadelphia – has spent $120 million to build 80 grocery stores since 2004, according to John Weidman, deputy director of the Food Trust. The Healthy Food Financing Initiative is modeled after Pennsylvania's program; White House and USDA officials have been working with the groups who run the FFFI to come up with the national version. (Above: Mrs. Obama tours the market with Burns)

"Doing well by doing good"
After the visit to Fresh Grocer, Mrs. Obama traveled to the Fairhill Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where she spoke about the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to a large crowd. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell accompanied Mrs. Obama, as did Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter, Secs. Geithner and Vilsack, as well as Pensylvania's congressional representatives. Mrs. Obama thanked the members of the Food Trust and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition in her remarks, and she lauded Philadelphia and community leaders for the effort that's been made to address food access. Before Fresh Grocer opened, the nieghborhood its located in didn't have a market.

"For ten years folks had to buy their groceries at places like convenience stores and gas stations, where usually they don't have a whole lot of fresh food, if any, to choose from," Mrs. Obama said. "So that means if a mom wanted to buy a head of lettuce to make a salad in this community, or have some fresh fruit for their kids' lunch, that means she would have to get on a bus, navigate public transportation with big bags of groceries, probably more than one time a week, or, worse yet, pay for a taxicab ride to get to some other supermarket in another community, just to feed her kids."

What was happening in Philadelphia is occurring across the country right now, Mrs. Obama noted. She said that 23.5 million Americans live in areas that are identified as food deserts, and that 6.5 million of these are children. But the food environment changed in Philadelphia thanks to the Fresh Food Financing Initiative and the work of Patrick Burns and other local business people, as well as the coordinated effort between city government and non profits, Mrs. Obama said.

"You all took a stand, a really important, collaborative stand," Mrs. Obama said. "You decided first that no family in this city should be spending a fortune on high-priced, low-quality foods because they have no other options. You decided that no child should be consigned to a life of poor health because of what neighborhood his or her family lives in."

The First Lady noted that Fresh Grocer has thrived since it's opened, and that it is also staffed by employees who live nearby; another good aspect of building local markets is the job creation opportunities. During the recent blizzard, Fresh Grocer was one of the few markets in the city that managed to remain open, because employees lived close by.

"When we bring fresh, healthy food to communities, what do we learn? People will buy it, right?" Mrs. Obama said. "People will buy it. These stores are turning a profit. And what's going on is that they're doing well by doing good."

Mrs. Obama also pointed out that what's gone on in Philadelphia is exactly the kind of effort needed to make Let's Move work on a national basis. She also joked about Sec. Geithner's presence.

"I don't think that many Treasury Secretaries can claim childhood obesity as part of their portfolio, right?" Mrs. Obama said. "It is pretty cool to have your husband's Treasury Secretary enthusiastically a part of this initiative."

She was interrupted frequently by laughter and applause. The full transcript of her remarks is here.

Racial issues in food access, the First Lady, and Let's Move
Enmeshed in all of Mrs. Obama's work on food initiatives is an attempt to redress racial and urban imbalances in food access and food security that have long existed in America, and to date, it's been fairly subtle. But from the White House Kitchen Garden--which has brought primarily minority children to the White House to help plant and harvest--to today's trip, the disparities between food access for communities of color and those for the white community have been an underlying theme in Mrs. Obama's work, and it's now getting stronger. She made direct reference to this in her remarks today, when she noted that "no child should be consigned to a life of poor health because of what neighborhood his or her family lives in."

East Wing aides worked with the White House Office of Urban Affairs in planning today's trip to Philadelphia; the city has a population that is 43.2 percent African American. Compare that to Chicago, which has a population that is more than double the size of Philadelphia, but which has an African American population of 36.77 percent, or New York, with a population seven times larger than Philadelphia, but with an African American population that is 25.2 percent. Fresh Grocer, the market Mrs. Obama visited, is located in Progress Plaza, which opened in 1968, and is believed to be the first African American-owned shopping center in the United States.

Food disparities aren't solely a racial issue, especially now when the unemployment rate is so high in America (although it's almost twice as high for African Americans as it is for whites). And food disparities won't just be profoundly altered simply by building more markets. But Mrs. Obama is calling attention to racially biased disparities in food access in an unprecedented way, because she's the First Lady. And it's gotten more obvious over the last month; Mrs. Obama has frequently noted in public remarks that child obesity has a far higher prevalence in African American and Hispanic communities, as do the chronic diet-related diseases that are associated with it. But it wasn't until a pre-launch speech about Let's Move that for the first time, Mrs. Obama noted publicly that she became concerned about food issues because her pediatrician was aware of health trends in the African American community, and warned her that these could effect her own daughters.

Urban agriculture expert Will Allen was a guest speaker at the launch event for Let's Move; his non-profit Growing Power was originally started as a way to specifically address food access issues that exist in urban, primarily non-white communities. A team of pee wee football champs, the Watkins Hornets, sat on the stage behind Mrs. Obama during the launch, too. The kids were all non-white, and had no speaking role in the event, and seemed to be there in order to graphically illustrate just whom is most at risk for child obesity--and who suffers the most from food access issues. NBC commentator and former football star Tiki Barber served as MC for the launch event; he's African American, too. And while the PSAs that have been created for the Let's Move campaign include white football star Drew Brees, most of these feature non-white spokespeople (M'onique, Nelly Furtado, other sports stars)--or animated characters, such as Nickelodeon's Maya and Miguel, Hispanic twins. (Above: Will Allen speaks at the launch of Let's Move; at right is Tiki Barber, seated, and behind him are the Watkins Hornets)

Another key part of Let's Move is also a vigorous push for a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act to bring far healthier foods into the federally funded school foods program. That program serves far more meals to non-white children than it does to white children.

It's interesting to note that while Mrs. Obama has been putting so much focus on food initiatives that impact non-white communities, President Obama has been slower to take up the cause. Just yesterday, the White House and USDA announced a deal to end a longstanding racial discrimination suit brought by black farmers against the USDA. It's been on the President's plate, so to speak, since before he entered office, but it's taken more than a year to be addressed.

Related: The First Lady stars in a White House video about food deserts here. Read more about Philadelphia's food environment, and the projects to combat food deserts in the city here.