Forty million Americans still live without easy access to fresh and healthy food options.
But not if the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which provides financial assistance and technical assistance to food access projects, has anything to say about it.
Set into motion by the Agricultural Act of 2014, the HFFI is a public-private partnership headed by Reinvestment Fund on behalf of USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).
“While the national HFFI grants program is new, healthy food financing programs have been supported by the federal government since 2011, and Reinvestment Fund has been working in this space since 2004, when we launched the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative,” said Molly Hartman, program director of HFFI.
During the past 34 years, Reinvestment Fund has made an impact in communities across the nation with $2.2 billion dollars in investments. The Philadelphia-based organization cares about giving communities quality options to thrive and develop. Being a federally certified community development financial institution (CDFI) describes their commitment to community, said Kavita Vijayan, Reinvestment Fund’s director of strategic communications. “We have a mission to provide capital to projects that bring opportunity and benefit underserved people and places.”
“We’re in it for the long-term, so we try and make sure that we are there to support these projects and projects we think are going to make a difference.” Vijayan added.
While working both locally and nationally, the mission-driven financial institution touches a range of community concerns. Projects from providing affordable, quality housing to education cater to the community needs without straining community resources. The HFFI is an excellent example.
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Inside each HFFI project, the community’s involvement and reflections on the issue is sought out. That information allows HFFI to target the right resources.
“[Grant] applicants sought financial assistance, as well as what we call technical assistance, such as support for a market report or a feasibility study that would help a business or organization shape their food retail project,” Hartman explained. “Applicants also sought funding for a variety of predevelopment and development costs, like design, equipment like refrigeration or vehicles, construction, and stocking inventory. We also saw a lot of interest in funding for projects to build community ownership in mission-driven grocery models — like cooperatives and community engagement efforts in the early stages of projects.”
Since the initiative is national, HFFI provides assistance for both urban and rural areas. Understandably, the infrastructure between urban and rural settings differ, and so do their solutions to problems.
“The context for why there are food access gaps is really different between rural Alaska and the west side of Chicago, but HFFI is a very flexible tool.” Hartman said.
For smaller communities, food access projects, such as grocery stores, become community anchors, and as resources create more value and strength in how the community operates. Reinvestment Fund looks to sustain resources that create easy and equitable access to healthy food.
“In our experience, people want to buy healthy food as long as it’s convenient and affordable for them,” Hartman said. “And that is where our focus has been…. on making sure communities can access what they need to make healthy choices. We like seeing food projects that have strong community partnerships, including with healthcare, and those that support increased purchasing power like prescription programs and nutrition incentives.”
“These types of partnerships,” she added, “support sustainability for local food retailers because they contribute to wealth-building in the communities where stores are located, as well as responsiveness on the part of the store to what customers are looking to buy.”
Reinvestment Fund is setting an example with HFFI. “We’re very happy to be at the helm of this new national initiative and to bring some of our experience working in Philadelphia and in the region to the national conversation,” Hartman said.
“At the same time, we can’t be everywhere at once,” she said. “The success of this program relies on partnerships with organizations working on food access across the country, and we’re always looking to connect with more.”-30-
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