Friday, September 30, 2011

An Alternative to a Really Bad Idea

Just when I thought I'd heard it all, the USDA is considering allowing the use of food stamps to buy fast food. This is something we should all fight. There are much better ways to reach the same goals.

The argument in favor of food stamps at fast food restaurants is this: Many poor neighborhoods are "food deserts" - places where fresh produce and other healthy foods are not readily available. While they lack healthy foods, "food deserts" are often well-served by fast food chains. So if we allow food stamps to be used in fast food restaurants, the program has a better chance of reaching the people who need it.

It seems to make sense, but it’s fraught with dangers. If we allow food stamps to be used in fast food restaurants, it will cause all sorts of health problems among our nation's poor. (Remember, these are the people who are least likely to have access to quality health care). It’s also a bad idea from an urban standpoint. It’s a stop-gap measure that fails to address the bigger problem of food deserts.

Instead of allowing food stamps to be used in fast food restaurants, we could use tax credits to lure grocers to food deserts. The tax credits could help grocers make a profit in underserved neighborhoods, where they would lose money otherwise. To get the tax credits, they could have to open a store that’s a certain size, and in a neighborhood that’s been identified as a food desert. To keep the tax credits, they could have to continue to sell fresh produce, and accept food stamps.

It’s not without precedent. We already have New Market Tax Credits (NMTC), and those are sometimes used to build grocery stores. We have Section 42 Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) that are used by developers to build low-income housing. The tax credits that I’m suggesting could be similar, but specifically designed to help grocery stores locate to food deserts.

We could pay for the grocery tax credits with money from the LIHTC program, along USD food stamp money. It’d help ensure that the poor can use food stamps in their own neighborhoods. Instead of just compensating for food deserts, this program would help solve food deserts.

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