Wimberly, Sumter, Diegnan & Jasey Bill to Bring Healthier Food Options to Urban & Rural Communities Advanced by Assembly Panel

An Assembly panel on Monday released legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Benjie Wimberly, Shavonda Sumter, Patrick Diegnan and Mila Jasey to provide fresher and healthier food choices to residents in urban and rural communities where healthy food options are limited.

The bill (A-1877) would require the state Department of Health (DOH) to develop a “Healthy Corner Store Program” to increase the availability and sales of fresh produce and nutritious, healthy food by small food retailers in rural and urban low and moderate income areas.

“Many urban and rural communities lack affordable healthy food options,” said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This program would provide funds for retailers to increase the availability and sales of fresh and nutritious food, including fresh produce and other healthy foods, at affordable prices to neighborhood residents in an effort to improve the health and wellness of community residents.”

“Corner stores are convenient, but often lack the fresh produce and nutritious foods that are essential for a healthy diet,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Unfortunately for some residents, corner stores are their only option. Making these funds available would help these stores better serve their customers by carrying foods that are better for them without additional cost to them.”

“Driving to Shoprite or Whole Foods to grocery shop is simply not an option for families who either live too far from the nearest supermarket or don’t have the transportation means to get there,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “Stocking smaller food stores with fresh vegetables, fruits and other nutritious foods would help serve those residents who right now don’t have that option.”

“We can educate the public all day long about the importance of good nutrition, but if they don’t have access to healthy foods, there is little they can do,” said Jasey (D-Essex/Morris). “By focusing on these smaller neighborhood stores that help fill the gap of larger chains, we can ensure that residents can get fresh produce and healthier foods that would otherwise be out of their reach.”

The bill would establish a “Healthy Small Food Retailer Fund” that would support the program. Monies from the fund could be used for:
· salary and associated administrative costs towards providing education, advice, or other assistance to small food retailers;
· refrigeration, display shelving, or other equipment necessary for a retailer to keep stock of healthy foods and fresh produce, up to $5,000 per retailer;
· materials and supplies for nutrition education and healthy food promotion; and
· mini-grants of up to $100 per retailer to meet initial expenses incurred with participation in the program. No less than 10 percent of the fund would be reserved for the grantee’s administrative and operational costs.

Under the bill, the DOH would select one or more grantees to administer the program and distribute funding to qualified small food retailers. The DOH would develop an application and selection process. To qualify for funding, an applicant would be required to:
· be a nonprofit entity;
· demonstrate it has a well-defined public health-driven goal;
· provide assistance to small food retailers located in low or moderate income areas that accept, agree to accept, or apply to accept, as appropriate, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children benefits;
· collect and provide data and information for program monitoring, accountability, and evaluation purposes; and
· establish defined goals, standards, and accountability mechanisms to ensure that expenditures from the fund are appropriate and consistent with the bill’s purposes.

The DOH would need to develop specific participation standards for a small food retailer, and consideration would be made for the level of need in certain areas to. A grantee would establish monitoring and accountability mechanisms for participating retailers, and if necessary enforce the agreements. The bill would require a grantee to submit a report to the DOH, by March 1 of each year, which would have to include information concerning the geographic distribution of the funding, and an evaluation of any data collected. In turn, the DOH would submit an annual report to the Legislature and to the governor, and provide recommendations about the program as necessary.

The bill was released by the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee.