The uneven distribution of supermarkets in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, which typically have 30 percent fewer supermarkets than higher income urban areas, correlates with higher rates of diet-related health problems including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes in these neighborhoods. Prophylactic measures are available, according to a recent study at the University of North Carolina, where researchers found that the presence of supermarkets increases the likelihood that residents actually consume healthy diets. In the study of more than 10,000 people, African Americans' intake of fruits and vegetables increased 32 percent for each additional supermarket located in the neighborhood where they live.
In an effort to increase the availability of affordable and nutritious foods to consequently meet the public health needs of residents of low-to-moderate income and underserved neighborhoods, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development teamed up with three Philadelphia-based nonprofits—The Food Trust, the Reinvestment Fund, and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition—to establish the Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) in 2004.
The nation's first and largest statewide financing program designed to attract grocery stores to underserved urban and rural communities, FFFI leverages capital and private sector investment to provide grants and loans which offset the higher costs of developing new stores and refurbishing existing stores in low-income urban and rural areas. FFFI thus increases accessibility of nutritious foods while also providing job opportunities and fostering neighborhood revitalization. To date, FFFI has approved 108 projects for eligibility and committed $25.8 million to 32 projects, expected to result in approximately 2,600 new jobs. FFFI is also collecting data to analyze the overall economic impact of supermarket development in underserved communities. A preliminary analysis estimates, for example, that the addition of a supermarket in a neighborhood results in a $1,500 immediate boost in property values for local homeowners.
Several aspects of the FFFI lend themselves to replicability in other jurisdictions, including its use of flexible capital, a single point of entrance for gaining funds, the cooperation and utilization of specialty organizations and nonprofits, and its application of industry knowledge to program administration. Because of these transferable features, as well as the program's success, FFFI is staff is currently working on establishing sister programs with counterparts in Illinois and Louisiana.