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Can Tax Incentives Help 'Food Deserts'?

Food deserts, areas where fresh and healthy foods can be hard to come by, are all over Florida. There are efforts under way in the Florida Legislature to provide tax incentives for grocers to open up in these areas.

"There's no single definition for a food desert, but generally, by the term, they mean that it's usually a low-income area, and an area where there are a lot of people that may have problems accessing healthy food," said Michelle Ver Ploeg, an economist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, is sponsoring a bill this session he said would help bring healthier food to areas that are classified as food deserts. 

"There are large segments of the population that unfortunately do not have access to quality foods, and you see this most often of course in socio-economically depressed areas," Bullard said.

The USDA's Economic Research Service Food Access Research Atlas shows "food access indicators for census tracts using half-mile and one-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for urban areas, 10-mile and 20-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for rural areas."

Plugging in the address for Roberta Bell of St. Petersburg shows she lives in an area designated as a food desert. It takes her 15 minutes on a bus to get from her home to the closest grocery store. It takes even longer to get to the downtown Publix, where she says she can buy the best produce.

"It's fresher and it's cheaper," Bell said. "The Walmart fruit is just kind of blah, and they want to charge more than Publix, and Publix has the best, I'm sorry."

An area in south St. Petersburg known as Midtown lost its supermarket about a year ago. That Sweetbay is where Bell, who uses a walker, shopped for her family of four.

"I was like, oh no, now I'm going to have to go all the way to Walmart on First Avenue North, and then I have to walk two blocks across the street to get to it," she said. 

Stores closer to her home were too expensive, according to Bell.

"Like the little neighborhood stores and stuff, they're just ridiculous," Bell said. "I mean, they want $3 for a loaf of bread. It's ridiculous."

In January, a Walmart Neighborhood Market opened in the former Sweetbay location.

"A lot of the customers either walk, ride a bike or catch public transportation, and this gives the customers an opportunity to come to a local grocery store," said store manager Carl Spady. "We've received a lot of good customer feedback. They're glad that we're here."

David Himmelgreen, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of South Florida, said poor nutrition is one component of several non-communicable chronic diseases, including heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.  He said the problem isn't that people don't know what foods are good for them.

"I mean, behaviors are difficult to change in terms of food habits, but a lot of times it does come down to whether or not it's available and whether they can afford it," he said. "We do know, for example, people who are lower income spend a higher proportion on non-food related items like rent, utilities and other essentials. So if they have less money for food, they're more restricted in the types of food they can buy."

For businesses to earn the tax credit, nutrient dense foods have to account for 20 percent of sales, among other requirements outlined in the bill. Nutrient-dense foods include items like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. 

"They're relatively high in vitamins and minerals, the healthy nutrients relative to the total calories," explained Himmelgreen, who said tax incentives for stores to sell more of these healthier products in food deserts is a good first step. 

There is a similar bill making its way through the Florida House.

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Lottie Watts at 813-974-8705 (desk) or e-mail at For more health news, visit

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.