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Supporters of a Nebraska bill intended to increase access to healthy, affordable food argued Monday that the global recession had worsened the problem.
Health advocates and nutritionists said shortages of healthy food options have plagued low-income areas of Omaha and parts of rural Nebraska for years.
University of Nebraska Lincoln nutrition specialist Wanda Koszewski said recent rising gas prices have limited the distances families can travel for healthy offerings. She said business closures and tighter family budgets have contributed as well, forcing some shoppers to choose cheaper but less healthy food.
"Parents sometimes have to make tough decisions in today's economy, where you have to look at nutrition versus price," Koszewski said. "It's not that they want feed them unhealthy food. It's that they have to choose between food, or no food."
Omaha Sen. Brenda Council has introduced legislation this session that would offer tax credits and encourage private funding for grocery stores, farmers markets and community gardens that serve low-access areas. An amendment to her bill, scheduled for second-round debate this week, would reduce the total available tax credit each year to $200,000, down from the $350,000 she had proposed.
Council has argued that her legislation would extend more healthy eating options to both urban and rural regions in so-called "food deserts" that lack easy access.
Critics worry the bill could create unintended consequences for established grocery stores, which operate in a highly competitive industry with slim margins. In earlier debate, some lawmakers said market forces would create healthy food options for customers if a demand existed.
Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, said shoppers in Omaha have to travel no further than three miles anywhere to reach a full-service grocery store.
Siefken said her group was neutral on the bill because its membership was split. But she said government support for programs in convenience stores or other small grocery operations could draw business away from more sustainable businesses.
"Frankly, when you're working on a 1 or 2 percent margin, it doesn't take much" to kill a business, Siefken said. "If the government comes in with a program that gives free money to a competitor, and that pulls sales away from existing stores, don't you put those stores in jeopardy?"
Thirteen percent of the nation's 3,143 counties qualified as food deserts a decade ago, with most of them in a band of rural areas stretching from Montana to North Dakota and then south to West Texas, according to a 2007 study done by Morton and Troy Blanchard, a Louisiana State University sociology professor.
In Cody, Neb., a town of 132 where the grocery store closed 10 years ago, community leaders got a $75,000 federal grant in 2009 to buy equipment and train high school students to run a grocery as a nonprofit. One quarter of the population is over 65 and half the school district's kids are on free or reduced lunch.
Studies have shown that childhood obesity more often affects children from low-income families. The higher cost of fresh produce and other healthful foods often creates a barrier for poorer families that erodes as income increases, according to the American Heart Association. The group's report pointed to established connections between a higher density of healthy food outlets and a lower mean body mass index and a lower prevalence of overweight adults.
Brian Krannawitter, an American Heart Association lobbyist, said the measure could increase healthful options in areas that need it most.
Roughly 2.3 million U.S. households live more than a mile from a supermarket and have no access to a vehicle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another 3.4 million live between one-half mile and 1 mile with no vehicle access.