Wimberly, Sumter & Lampitt Bill to Bring Healthier Food Options to Urban & Rural Communities Clears Assembly

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Benjie Wimberly, Shavonda Sumter and Pamela Lampitt to provide fresher and healthier food choices to residents in urban and rural communities where healthy food options are limited was approved Thursday by the Assembly.

The bill (A-4496) would provide funds to small food retailers operating in New Jersey in low- and moderate-income urban and rural communities to help increase access to healthier foods.

“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.”

“We can’t expect people to eat healthy when their food options are limited,” said Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington). “This can help encourage healthier eating habits by making it easier for retailers in food deserts to stock their aisles with fresh produce and other nutritious foods.”

The bill would require the Department of Health to develop a “Healthy Corner Store Program” to increase the availability of fresh produce and healthy food in rural and urban low- and moderate-income areas, and establish a “Healthy Small Food Retailer Fund” to support the program.

The bill would appropriate $1 million for the fund. Moneys from the fund may be used for: (1) salary and associated administrative costs towards providing education, advice, or other assistance to small food retailers; (2) 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; (3) materials and supplies for nutrition education and healthy food promotion; and (4) 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 is reserved for the grantee’s administrative and operational costs.

The bill would allow the department to select one or more grantees to administer the program and distribute funding to retailers. The department would have to develop an application and applicant selection process and create eligibility guidelines for any organization applying to be a grantee. To qualify for funding, applicants must be nonprofit entities with a well-defined public health-driven goal, and must provide assistance to small food retailers located in low- or moderate-income areas that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children benefits. Program grantees must also collect and provide data and information for program monitoring, accountability, and evaluation purposes.

The bill directs the department to develop specific participation standards for a small food retailer and allocate assistance based on the level of need in an area. As a condition of participating, the bill obliges a small food retailer to sign a written agreement prior to receiving assistance. The bill requires a grantee to establish monitoring and accountability mechanisms for participating retailers, authorizes the grantee to monitor those retailers, and, if necessary, enforce the agreements.

The bill also requires a grantee to submit a report to the department, by March 1 of each year, which includes information concerning the overall geographic distribution of the funding, the amount of funding allocated to each small food retailer, the health impacts associated with the program and its funding, and an evaluation of any data collected from participants. In turn, the bill directs the department to submit an annual report to the Legislature and to the governor, and provide recommendations about the program as necessary.

The bill was approved 52-15-7, and now awaits further consideration by the Senate.