New Illinois law aims to make healthy-food deserts bloom with fresh produce

August 18, 2022

A new Illinois program to increase the availability of fresh food in the state’s “food deserts” — areas where there is a lack of fresh food vendors — will begin in 2023.

HB 2382, the “Healthy Food Program Development Act,” which became law in June, directs the Department of Human Services to expand access to health food in historically under-utilized business zones (as defined by federal law) using a combination of grants, loans, tax credits or other financial assistance, plus equipment or technical aid, to qualified vendors who agree in writing to sell produce “or other healthy foods” for at least three years.

The department must appoint a “grocery ambassador” to work with such vendors, which may include grocery stores, neighborhood corner stores, farmers’ markets or other “small food retailers.”

Participating vendors will be “strongly encouraged” to accept benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and employ Illinois residents.

While food deserts and food insecurity are problems predating the COVID-19 pandemic, the national health crisis exacerbated the problem, according to an August 2021 Brookings Institution report, “Beyond ‘food deserts’: America needs a new approach to mapping food insecurity.” In 2019, the report said, 10.5 percent of all U.S. households faced food insecurity, and that rate doubled from February to May 2020.

Some states try to fill food deserts through schools. Nebraska’s Farm to School Program Act (LB 396 of 2021), for example, helps local school districts connect with local farmers and ranchers to provide fresh food in schools. It arose from a 2020 interim session study (LR 337 of 2020) which recommended establishing a statewide farm-to-school program and the creation of two full-time positions to coordinate statewide farm-to-school activities. That study was an update of a 2009 interim study (LR 42 of 2009) of the potential for such programs.

The Michigan Department of Education administers the “10 Cents a Meal” program that uses state grants to match what schools spend — up to 10 cents per meal — on Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables and legumes. The state’s fiscal year 2023 budget doubled spending on the program from $4.5 million to $9.3 million.