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Florida bill would bring back healthy food program for ‘food deserts’

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(The Center Square) — A new bill has been filed in the Florida Legislature to possibly expand the state’s ability to help provide nutritious food to Floridians and eliminate so-called food deserts.

Senate Bill 112 sponsored by state Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, and would relaunch the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Program, created in 2016 by lawmakers to provide financial assistance to grocery retail outlets in low-income and low-access communities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released data in 2019 that said that approximately 13.5% of Floridians are living in these communities, which are sometimes known as food deserts due to low access to nutritious food.

The bill came after the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the state’s legislative research arm, released a report in October on the program, using data collected by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services since the program’s inception, which is required under state law.

The report states that $500,000 was appropriated for the program, which was then dispersed between 2017 and 2020 by the Florida Community Loan Fund to three different recipients: Evans Center, Fresh Choice Market and Highpoint Food Rx Pharmacy.

OPPAGA found that the contract between the Department of Agriculture and FCLF, including its rules, did not establish support for statutory goals, which ultimately prevented reinvestment from state funds. It was further found that the department and FCLF had overstated the program’s impact, and limited data collection prevented accurate program evaluation.

The report notes that while there was an improvement in food access across the three communities, results in economic viability and the value to local communities varied.

According to the report, Evans Center provided several services but was not sustainable without further grants and donations. The Highpoint Food Rx Pharmacy had a high withdrawal rate and few people redeeming vouchers despite having positive evaluations. Fresh Choice Market offered various fresh food and had relatively positive feedback from the community.

OPPAGA stated that if the Legislature wants to move forward with the program, they recommend that program operations and effectiveness be improved, including modifying program rules, use of program funding and additional funding strategies, which is addressed in HB 112.

Similar bills were introduced during the 2023 regular session that would have revived the program, House Bill 307 and SB 292. Both bills died in committee.

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