By Jessica Wetzler
Capital News Service
RICHMOND - A bipartisan group of public officials urged the General Assembly on Thursday to create a Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to help attract supermarkets to food deserts in the state.
Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe was joined by senators and delegates at a news conference in support of legislation to create the fund.
Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe included $7.5 million in his proposed 2018-20 budget to establish the grocery fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, and Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, have joined to sponsor SB 37, which would provide funding to build or expand grocery stories in underserved communities.
"I have carried many bills," Stanley said, "but not as important as this one."
In the House, HB 85 is being sponsored by Dels. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond.
"It's 2018, terms like 'food desert' should not be part of our vocabulary, but it is. We should not have hungry Virginians, but we do," Bell said.
More than 1.7 million Virginians, including 480,000 children, live in low-income areas with limited supermarket access. These areas are often called food deserts -- communities where residents are unable to access fresh produce, lean meats and other nutritious food.
"It's not a political issue, it's a human issue," Stanley said.
Through the fund, private-public partnerships leveraging state dollars with private money will be made to provide one-time, low-interest loans or small grants. The objective is to encourage such food retailers as grocery stores or innovative food retail projects to open or renovate markets in underserved communities. Supporters say that would also provide new jobs.
The investment fund would have a goal of working with more than 15 healthy food retail projects, with an average of 40 new and retained jobs per grocery store.
New and existing businesses in at least 18 localities have confirmed interest in seeking low-interest loans and grants to expand and create new healthy food retail operations, supporters said.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a similar program in October that would bring new grocery options through the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund. The $3 million investment is to begin in September.
"We've worked for four years to expand food access across Virginia, and this legislation will move us forward," Dorothy McAuliffe said on Twitter after the news conference.
"It's a right for all Virginians and Americans."