JEFFERSON CITY — From the windows of her small business on the north side of St. Louis, Karen Greer often sees elderly residents from the nearby senior living facility walk nearly four blocks to a convenience store down the street. It’s one of the few places residents can buy food in their neighborhood.

Limited transportation options and few grocery stores result in few food options for many local residents. When such constraints intersect with health status, age and low income, advocates say it can be nearly impossible for residents to access affordable fresh food.

“It is a high need to have more grocery stores or more opportunities to have fresh produce,” Greer said.

Greer said the pandemic opened her eyes even wider to disparities among food access. She decided to purchase two nearby vacant lots to turn into an urban farm and market to help bring fruits and vegetables to her neighbors.

Initiatives like Greer’s that aim to provide localized solutions to increase food access would be bolstered by a bill filed by Missouri Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis.

“This bill not only addresses food insecurity, but it will also initially bring jobs,” Collins said. “If we can bring development in our areas for the sole purpose of food production and full-service grocery stores, we can start to employ people in our neighborhood.”

House Bill 1411, which was heard by a House committee Tuesday, would provide tax credits up to $1,000 per year for individuals who incur expenses when establishing an urban farm in a food desert. It would also provide tax incentives for the reestablishment of full-service grocery stores in affected areas over a period of six years.

Missouri is home to more than 100 food deserts, according to previous reporting by the Missourian. The bill defines food deserts as areas where low-income populations are at least one mile away from a full-service grocery store in urban areas and 10 miles away in rural areas.

Under this definition, the Columbia area has five tracts of land designated as food deserts, according to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas.

Tosha Phonix works with urban and rural communities around the state to increase access to fresh food. She says some communities located in the Bootheel have to cross state lines to access full-service grocery stores.

“How much economic (impact) is that taking from the state of Missouri, when they have to go to Arkansas to shop?” Phonix asked. “That’s a significant amount of money that could be put right back into (our) economy.”

Bill McKelvey, project coordinator for the University of Missouri Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, said the pandemic has highlighted vulnerable areas in our food system. While there’s no cure-all solution, community gardening and urban agriculture efforts can help communities become more connected and secure, in addition to offering nourishing food.

“There are all kinds of social and community benefits of local food systems that are very important, that really all contribute to community health,” McKelvey said. “At the end of the day, we all need good food, clean air, clean water and good relationships. All those things go into making us healthy.”

While food insecurity affects both urban and rural areas, residents in communities of color face additional barriers to establishing vibrant local food systems.

Collins’ bill would also establish the “Socially Disadvantaged Communities Outreach Program” through the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The program would provide services to increase access to healthy fresh food, financially support growers in such areas and provide skills training in food production for historically underserved communities that experience racial or ethnic prejudice.

“This type of initiative, it would push those ... on the city level to think about it and actually move forward,” said Melissa Nash, who works at Yeatman-Liddell College Preparatory Middle School and is on Collins’ staff.

In informational testimony, representatives from the Missouri Department of Agriculture mentioned several existing programs that could potentially complement programs outlined in HB 1411, including the Urban Agriculture Matching Grant Program, the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, Farmers’ Market Promotion Program and the “Farm to Table” Program.

No parties testified in opposition of the bill.

  • Mallory is a first-year masters student studying investigative reporting at the University of Missouri.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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