FOR THE first time in history, American children are living shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. In the past 30 years, the childhood obesity rate has tripled, and trend lines for adults are no more encouraging. In 20 years, half of all adults in the U.S. are projected to be obese.
Make no mistake - the obesity epidemic in America is leading to increasing rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and this is having a major impact on our economy. Ten percent of health-care costs in the U.S. are attributed to preventable, obesity-related illnesses, and some projections indicate that that figure could double.
Parents have a responsibility to teach their children healthy eating habits that will guide them throughout their lives, but for too many families it is not as simple as just heading to the local grocery store. Every day, all across this country, 24 million Americans live in food deserts, defined as either urban areas lacking access to a supermarket within one mile, or rural areas lacking similar access within 10 miles. Without a convenient and affordable way to buy healthy food, individuals either spend hours traveling or are forced to feed their families significantly less nutritious options, many of which are often more expensive.
If we want to fight the obesity epidemic in this country, we should start with the most basic solution: access to healthy foods. Increasing access to grocery stores in underserved communities will address this growing problem and will help stimulate local economic development.
Why in a country as wealthy as America is access to healthy food such a problem?
High start-up costs and limited access to capital often prevent local grocery operators from opening new outlets in food deserts, even though many that have opened in these underserved communities have been commercially successful. Urban grocery-store owners face increased real-estate costs or limited availability of commercial real estate, increased employee training needs and costs, elevated security expenses and, often, zoning restrictions. Grocery stores in rural food deserts face increased food-delivery costs due to distance from distributors, dispersed customer base and low volume.
To address this growing health and economic problem, we have recently reintroduced the bipartisan Healthy Food Financing Initiative, aimed at creating a national effort to expand access to healthful, fresh foods in underserved communities. The bill, introduced by Reps. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and by U.S. Sens. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa. and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., takes a market-based approach to address these challenges by providing flexible loan and grant financing to local grocery operators.
Our initiative is based on the successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which has supported 88 new or improved fresh-food retail outlets since 2004 and leveraged a $30 million state grant to generate $192 million in grocery stores and other projects.
This public-private partnership would boost economic growth by creating and retaining good-paying, steady jobs; revitalizing communities by developing and renovating neighborhood retailers; and generating local tax revenue by strengthening commercial corridors. On average, a 50,000-square-foot supermarket creates 250 full-time jobs, associated construction work and expanded opportunities for American farmers.
Pennsylvania's initiative has created or retained more than 5,000 jobs and increased access to healthful food for more than 400,000 residents across the commonwealth. In 2006, a single 57,000-square-foot store in Philadelphia created 370 jobs for residents and generated $540,910 of local tax revenue in one year.
Since 2010, similar public-private partnerships have been launched in California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and the cities of New Orleans and New York. There is clear evidence that efforts like this work.
We face many barriers to improving the health of America, but the most basic solution is access to healthy foods. Without a national effort to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to choose healthful foods for themselves and their families, we will be faced with a generation of sicker, obese Americans who require more costly medical treatment.
We owe it to the next generation to solve this problem now.