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White House Chef on Food-Desert Fight

Sam Kass, Obama's healthy-food adviser, deflects criticism of his quest for healthier communities.

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"That's 10 years of a child's life, from the day that they were born until they were 10 years old. Or from when they were 5 to 15," said Kass. "These are the formative years of young people's habits and tastes being developed. If the only thing that's around them are foods that are fundamentally unhealthy and they aren't even exposed to what a healthy diet can look like, that's what kids become accustomed to. This is why the food-desert issue is so critical."

The Fresh Grocer is also a success story on which Let's Move! has modeled much of its food-desert work. Funded by a financing partnership between the state government and two Philadelphia nonprofits, collectively called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, the market is thriving, said Kass, and has brought much-needed jobs to the neighborhood. "They're really turning a good business from shaping the business model to support the specific needs of the community," he explained. "The grocery store also has an amplifier effect, with other businesses opening up around it."

In 2010 the Obama administration rolled out a national version of the program called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Funded by pooled resources from the departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, the project provides grants, low-interest loans and new-market tax credits to food retailers and community-development financial institutions to increase access to healthy, affordable food in underserved neighborhoods.

Yet the HFFI, which started out with $35 million in discretionary funding, hit a snag when the project's request for $298 million in the 2012 budget was met with a far lower amount -- just $32 million appropriated by Congress. "The program is still moving along in an incredibly effective way," said Kass, explaining that through New Markets Tax Credit awards, allocated by the Treasury Department for community revitalization, they have generated more than $400 million toward the effort.

Pushback From the Left

In addition, last year a coalition of food corporations including Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and Save-a-Lot pledged to build or expand 1,500 stores in food deserts within five years. According to the companies, these locations will serve 9.5 million people. The California Endowment, a private health foundation, is also working with private and public partners to expand healthy food projects throughout the state.

The largest partners in the Let's Move! campaign have been private food retailers, especially mega-chain Wal-Mart -- an approach that has drawn more criticism, this time from the political left. Food-justice activists, for example, argue that big corporations only drive smaller retailers and farmers out of business.

"Wal-Mart is still the retail giant that exploits its workers and suppliers to undercut all other competition," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch. "All communities, especially those that are struggling financially, will be better served for the long term by local businesses that put money back into the community by paying livable wages and buying from local and regional suppliers and farmers whenever possible."

"The first major thing the first lady did in this effort was to plant a garden at the White House -- the first major garden there since the 1890s," Kass continued. "She also helped to support the opening of a farmers market two blocks away from the White House, which takes SNAP [food stamp] benefits. The USDA's also working hard to ensure that more and more farmers markets will be able to take SNAP to help improve access to healthy food [for] low-income families."

A Goal in Sight