Monday, October 10, 2011

First Lady, Mayor Emanuel Host Chicago Food Desert Summit; Local Group Gets $3 Million

In the Obama hometown, a push to combat obesity, improve food access and create jobs; Treasury Department awards Healthy Food Financing Initiative grant to Chicago group...
UPDATE, OCT. 25th: CLICK HERE FOR LINKS to all posts about the summit
"Food deserts" are low-income areas that don't have nearby grocery markets and other venues that offer citizens easy access to healthy, affordable food. First Lady Michelle Obama has made eliminating these a pillar of her Let's Move! campaign, with the ambitious goal of doing so in just six years. Her hometown of Chicago may become the metropolitan leader in the effort: The White House has confirmed to Obama Foodorama that the First Lady will join Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Oct. 25th for a food desert "summit" that will bring together Mayors, CEOS from grocery and pharmacy corporations, and urban agriculture leaders to discuss a battle plan. To spur the action, Chicago's IFF, a nonprofit lender and real estate consultant, has just been awarded a $3 million grant under Mrs. Obama's Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a federal program run by the US Treasury. It was one of just twelve projects selected from across the US. See 2:30 PM update, below: The President and Vice President of IFF have close ties to Emanuel. (Above: The President, Mrs. Obama, and Emanuel with staff t the White House)

"The summit will be an opportunity to share best practices and explore new strategies that mayors can implement to support communities that lack the food they need," Hannah August, the First Lady's Press Secretary, told Obama Foodorama.

“There will be mayors from ten cities coming," Emanuel said this weekend when he first announced his own participation in the event to the Chicago Sun-Times, before the East Wing had formally announced the summit.

The confab will include a roundtable at City Hall, and Mrs. Obama is expected to tour a few areas in Chicago to see the kinds of "challenges" her hometown is now facing. Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, a Chicago native who worked for the Obamas as their personal chef before accompanying them to the White House, was a very busy "community organizer" for food initiatives in his days before becoming the most influential chef in America.

Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chain, is headquartered in Chicago. In July, the company pledged to join Mrs. Obama's effort to eradicate food deserts with a commitment to revamp up to 1,000 of its stores, turning these into healthy food "oases." At the summit, Walgreens is expected to announce an expansion on its pledge: The company has been in talks with the White House for a project to sponsor farmers' markets, a source close to the project told Obama Foodorama.

The summit day will also include a seasonal, locally sourced luncheon for participants at a small restaurant, created by unidentified chefs.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative and the Chicago Grant....
Emanuel left his post as President Obama's Chief of Staff to run for Mayor, and part of his campaign platform was plucked directly from the Let's move! playbook. This summer, he convened a meeting of six grocery CEOS in Chicago to discuss food deserts. Mrs. Obama was way ahead of him: In addition to the Walgreens pledge in July, she also received major commitments from other grocery companies--including Walmart--to build or revamp hundreds more markets in food deserts around the US. (Above: Mrs. Obama during the announcement in July)

The commitments will create "tens of thousands of jobs," White House officials said repeatedly during and after the event. That's a focus of the Chicago food desert summit, too.

"On a local level, mayors know that access to healthy and affordable food is the cornerstone for economic development and neighborhood vitality," August said.

“We intend to share ideas on how to deal with this [food deserts] both from an economic-development, job-growth and public-health standpoint," Emanuel said.

That's where the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) comes in. It is an interagency project involving the Departments of the Treasury, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, which is now offering grants to inspire corporations that are willing to build in food deserts. On September 14th, the Treasury announced $25 million in grants for FY 2011, for 12 food desert projects in 9 states under its Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

"HFFI represents the federal government's first coordinated step to eliminate "food deserts" by promoting a wide range of interventions that expand the supply of and demand for nutritious foods, including increasing the distribution of agricultural products; developing and equipping grocery stores; and strengthening producer-to-consumer relationships," noted the Treasury's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund when announcing the awards.

Chicago's IFF will use its award for "an initial emphasis on full-service, for-profit grocery stores in "food deserts" in the Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City" areas, the organization said in a news release. It will "fund a pipeline of retail projects to improve access to healthy foods in low-income areas."

"We are excited to be selected as part of the federal Healthy Foods Financing Initiative," said IFF CEO Joe Neri. "We simply would not be able to take such a comprehensive approach to this issue without the support of the HFFI award."

Founded in 1988, IFF says it has total assets of $200 million, and serves nonprofits working with low-income communities and special needs populations in Illinois and surrounding states.

"What we are doing here is a model for other cities,” Emanuel said.

Did the White House have input on HFFI grant recipients? - UPDATE
The other 11 recipients that received HFFI grants ranging from $500,000 to $3 million are in Pennsylvania (2 projects), Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, California, Louisiana, Maine, and Massachusetts (3 projects), all of which happen to be battleground states for the 2012 election. Press Secretary August declined to comment on whether the White House had any input on the selection of awardees.

2:30 PM UPDATE: IFF President Trinita Logue served on Emaneal's mayoral transition Government Reinvention and Budget committee, and IFF Vice President Jose Cerda III was a domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House, serving with Emanuel, reports my colleague Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for Chicago Sun-Times. Sweet covers both the Obama White House and Chicago politics.

"We think we were awarded this grant because of the work we have already done on health food financing," Cerda told Sweet. "And we are excited to work with the mayor and the governor on their initiatives. This will directly compliment their efforts." *End update*

Mrs. Obama first announced the HFFI as a $400 million project in February of 2010, shortly after she launched Let's Move!. But Congress failed to approve the Administration's request for the funding. This year, the Administration is requesting $330 million, Mrs. Obama said in July.

Emanuel's brother, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, did double duty as an advisor to the Let's Move! team while at the White House as a special health care advisor to the President. He departed earlier this year.

Mrs. Obama will also be headlining a re-election fundraiser during her visit to Chicago on Oct. 25, at Plumbers Hall.

Click here for the award recipients for the HFFI grants and click here for awardee profiles [PDF]

*USDA released a Let's Move! fact sheet about the July food desert commitments. The agency has multiple definitions for what actually constitutes a "food desert," as noted in this post.

*Mrs. Obama visited the Treasury Department in July of 2010, where she thanked staff for all their work on the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

"Here at Treasury, you’re playing an incredibly important role in addressing this important challenge," Mrs. Obama said.

*In 2009, USDA issued a massive report to Congress on food deserts. A key finding: "Easy access to all food, rather than a lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity."

*One of the largest and most comprehensive studies on food deserts to date was published in July in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It analyzed 15 years of information about youth dietary and purchasing habits in four major metropolitan areas, and found that "greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake, and relationships between grocery store availability and diet outcomes were mixed."

*Photo by Pete Souza/White House, taken on Oct. 1, 2010: President and Mrs. Obama pay tribute to Emanuel at a reception with senior staff on the Truman Balcony of the White House, on the day he left his post.

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