Invest in better food — and build a better economy

Photo by Kay Ledbetter

Our state lawmakers are considering a bipartisan approach to help remedy areas considered to be “food deserts” — areas in which millions of Texans live with little to no access to grocery stores or other forms of food retail.

This is personal to me. When I talk about people in low opportunity neighborhoods, I am talking about my parents as we were growing up. My friends and family. My teachers and role models. I am talking about me as a child, growing up in a three-bedroom, government-assisted home with two brothers and one sister. I am talking about children today living in communities with little to no access to healthy food. I know better than most that what struggling families actually need is not the gift of charity, but the gift of opportunity.

Fortunately that opportunity has arrived with both House Bill 3324 by state Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, and its companion, Senate Bill 2156 by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. These bills would establish a food retail incentive fund, which would provide financial assistance to businesses looking to expand healthy retail into these markets, while also attracting additional private and philanthropic dollars to further bolster development. This novel approach relies on what we do better in this country than anywhere else in the world: unleashing the power of the free market and creating businesses and jobs.

The best part of this proposal is that it’s proven; we know this approach works. Successful projects span the country due to similar policies in states like Indiana, Alabama, Louisiana and Ohio, and we have our own local success story here in Texas. In 2014, the City of Houston’s financing assistance resulted in the construction of a new grocery store — Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods — in a low-income area not too far from the city’s downtown. Not only is the store a success, it has become a hub for economic activity — providing jobs and services for the area — and a beacon of hope for hundreds of residents looking for gainful employment. Today, just over a year after opening, its commercial center is now fully occupied by businesses. There is even a new auto service center across the street. This is the power of what smart economic development policy can do in areas thirsty for investment. Addressing disparity at the most basic level, improving food access while boosting the local economy, providing jobs and developing infrastructure; now we are speaking my language.

The health benefits are equally apparent. We are currently experiencing the highest childhood obesity rate this country has ever seen. Without grocery access, children are forced to eat what is readily available to them, whether it’s healthy or not. This doesn’t just affect urban communities — we must also consider our state’s large rural population. Not all of us live in cities with the resources of Houston, which is another reason this statewide fund is so crucial. Rural businesses face their own special challenges that this fund will help to alleviate.

You do not have to live in a food desert to benefit from this approach; you need only be a taxpayer. A successfully financed grocery store in Pennsylvania recently added $540,000 to local tax revenue in just one year. In Texas, these kinds of tax receipts fund many of our critical services including schools, roads and even hospitals.

I am a businessman, not a politician. But if running Texas were my business, I would invest in a food retail incentive fund immediately. It is a no-brainer. No matter your political affiliation or whether you come at this from an economic/fiscal gains perspective or one centered on health and poverty, we all win.

So join me this legislative session in urging our lawmakers to support HB 3324 and SB 2156, establishing this much-needed food retail investment fund for Texas. With our state currently looking to cut spending, additional sources of revenue and economic stimulus are just too important to pass up, and the health and welfare of our children is too important to overlook.

Emmitt Smith

President/CEO, Emmitt Smith Enterprises

@EmmittSmith22

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