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by intern Jackie Fortin

“We can create the best nutrition education and physical education programs in the world, but if dinner is something off of the shelf of a local gas station or convenience store, because there’s no grocery store nearby, all our best efforts are going to go to waste,” the First Lady said during a speech at Philadelphia’s Fairhill School on Feb. 19 to launch the Obama Administration’s new Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI).

Currently, the USDA estimates that 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children live in “food deserts,” or economically distressed areas that are typically served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores offering little or no fresh produce.

“Food deserts,” which can now be identified using USDA’s new Food Environment Atlas, are one of the many results of the nation’s broken food system preventing individuals from making better choices and denying them the ability to vote with their forks. When an area lacks healthy, affordable food options, its inhabitants are prone to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

In order to achieve the Obama Administration’s goal of eliminating “food deserts” nationwide in the next seven years, the HFFI will fund a movement of bringing grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved urban and rural communities across America. The effort will also include providing grocery stores on wheels for less densely populated areas, said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan during her “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” presentation at The New School Feb. 25.

The $400 million initiative, which will use a mix of federal tax credits, below-market rate loans, loan guarantees, and grants aimed to attract private sector capital, is being made possible through a partnership between the departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), the HFFI will ideally not only provide access to healthy food, but will also invest in communities by removing financing obstacles and operating barriers, as well as by creating living wage jobs and qualified work forces.