© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Connecticut is encouraging grocery stores to open in food deserts

 A community member rummages food products at the Pomfret Community Market.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
A community member rummages food products at the Pomfret Community Market.

Opening up grocery stores in food deserts may soon become less expensive in the state, as provisions that provide tax incentives for such stores were incorporated into the state budget, which is now awaiting Gov. Ned Lamont’s approval.

“It’s win-win,” said Anne Miller, executive director at Thompson Ecumenical Empowerment Group, a nonprofit that provides community support and resources such as community food markets, diaper banks and clothing vouchers.

“I think about here in North Grosvenor Dale in the town of Thompson. The only real food store that we have is Dollar General,” Miller said. “And it would be my fondest hope that maybe a grocery store would move into this area and provide some fresh foods. That’s my hope. And, of course, that would be a wonderful boost in revenue to the town eventually. And it would provide jobs.”

The food desert bill provisions, formerly part of House Bill 6854, were incorporated into House Bill 6941, the state budget bill. There are two main things the provisions do: provide tax incentives and allow the hiring of a statewide food and nutrition analyst.

For the tax incentives, the bill allows municipalities that contain food deserts to provide relief on real estate taxes for two assessment years to new grocery stores wanting to open up in those areas.

Food deserts are defined according to a classification system by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Census tracts classifying as food deserts are areas that are low-income and low-access, meaning its residents live far from a grocery store.

Carl Asikainen, food systems coordinator at TEEG, thinks education and awareness is the first step in getting these tax abatements in action.

“I think it's important for us to think about how we can talk about this locally. You know, share it with our contacts and our peers that are doing nonprofit work, or that are doing food security work. But then also talk to our elected folks at the town level,” said Asikainen. “So I'm just thinking of, you know, next steps for us should be, once the governor signs it, is to really figure out, how can we advertise it?”

A municipality wouldn’t lose out on the tax revenue that would otherwise be paid by the grocery store. At the discretion of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, the department would be able to provide a financial grant to the municipalities in the amount no more than the property taxes that were relieved to offset the lost revenue.

But big box stores larger than 20,000 square feet, such as a Walmart or Whole Foods, have one additional requirement to access the tax incentives: they must enter into a labor peace agreement with a labor union.

In contrast to a collective bargaining agreement, this would simply require an agreement to be "peaceful" between the union and the grocery store employer in case the union tries to unionize the grocery store’s employees. The employer must agree to remain neutral, allow the union access to the store’s employees, and guarantee the union the right to be the employees’ union representative if the workers wish to. In return, a labor union must agree to not cause any sort of economic disruption such as boycotts, work stoppages, picketing or any other means.

“In working with the unions, lobbyists and others that are on this bill, we were able to negotiate so the smaller mom and pops, the smaller type grocery stores of 20,000 and less, they don't have to have any other agreements within their agreement to get the tax abatement,” said Rep. Jay Case, R-Winchester, on the House Floor before the bill got rolled into the state budget. “We want everybody to have the ability to get to these stores to be able to use their SNAP, their different cards that they have.”

Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, which is a trade association that represents food retailers and others, said that enticing grocery stores to go into food deserts was a proactive move by the legislature.

“This bill addresses systemic inequities and promotes a more equitable food system for all Connecticut residents, regardless of their socioeconomic status or geographic location. Grocery stores are the cornerstones of the communities and neighborhoods they serve, and our state's most vulnerable residents deserve access to affordable and nutritious food options just as much as anyone else,” said Pesce.

Some of those vulnerable residents are low-income people who rely on SNAP benefits. The CT Mirror previously reported that two dozen towns in the state don't have stores that accept SNAP benefits. As of early June, that number remains the same.

Another provision in the state budget would direct the Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity and Opportunity to hire a food and nutrition policy analyst. The analyst would create publicly available food resource databases, annual reports, community-focused work groups and also spread awareness about food access.

“We have to kind of hold that analyst up high, and, you know, cheer them on in the work that they're doing, and then also use some of the content and data in our work,” said Asikainen.

As defined in the provisions, a grocery store must have 90% of its square footage used for display and sale of food products and at least 20% of it for fresh produce, dairy and meat products.

“If you feed people healthy food, you have healthy people,” said Miller. “People who use food markets, food pantries, as a supplement to their income generally tend to suffer diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure at much higher rates than the rest of the population. If you can't get your hands on fresh food, what you're doing is buying shelf-stable, high salt, high fat, lots of preservatives, and that becomes the staple of your diet. And that becomes your way of eating, whether you want to or not.”

According to estimates, 8.5% of adults aged 18 years and over in Connecticut had diagnosed diabetes in 2018.

And the rates differ among different socioeconomic groups. Men, older people, people of color, low-income people and people with a lower educational attainment, all have higher rates of diabetes.

The state’s estimates also show that slightly over 24% of adults with diagnosed diabetes have had a heart attack, stroke or coronary heart disease.

And adults from health districts in eastern Connecticut were more likely to have a higher prevalence of diagnosed diabetes compared with the statewide average.

Miller does note that the term "food apartheid" is often used instead of food desert.

"The decision as to where good and healthy food is made available is sometimes viewed as being a political decision...I think this [bill] fights against that notion. It's the state of Connecticut stepping in to say 'No, we're not going to allow that' so I'm very happy to hear that there has been made some some really intentional steps towards ending food apartheid," said Miller.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.