Building an Equitable Diet: The US Healthy Food Funding Initiative and Other Tools to Increase Food Access

Written by Olivia Chatman, Program Associate – Food Initiatives, Reinvestment Fund

Across the country, the shameful reality of limited access to healthy food afflicts historically marginalized communities. It’s a problem rooted in discriminatory policies and disinvestment, and is reflected in the 27.6 million people who live in places with unfair and inadequate access to healthy food, according to our research on supermarket access disparities in the neighboring United States. In cities like Atlanta, supermarket development is known to have followed patterns of redlining, a discriminatory lending practice that began in the 1930s, in which retailers focused development in rich and white communities while avoiding lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Recently released Fresh Food Access Report for Atlanta showed that 25% of the city’s population lived within more than half a mile of fresh food as of 2020, an indication of limited access to food according to the USDA’s Food Research Atlas. Nationwide, there Much fewer chain supermarkets in mostly low-income areas than in middle-income areas. Likewise, nearly half as many supermarkets are located in predominantly black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

Addressing food access challenges depends on partnerships and collaboration. Community organizing, advocacy and participation are all important parts of the process of taking steps towards food justice and deconstructing food inequality. Reaching these goals requires resources, such as money and technical expertise that can ensure the long-term sustainability of society’s efforts. Unfortunately, these tools are often not easily accessible in underserved communities and for which they will be most useful.

As a national Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) with offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, the Reinvestment Fund works in a variety of sectors, including access to food, health care, education, and housing to address historical underinvestment and inequality due to systemic and institutional racism. These historical inequities have prevented certain groups of people, especially people of color, from accessing the resources needed for the development and prosperity of society. In the food space, Reinvestment Fund has pioneered strategies to provide debt, grants, technical assistance, and analytical tools to support fair food systems with programs such as Pennsylvania Fresh Food Finance Initiative which is a model for partnership in food access and investment strategies.

Over the past 10 years, the Reinvestment Fund has invested more than $253 million to fund healthy, non-retail food retail projects nationwide. with Dozens of studies on food-related topics, including access, financing mechanisms, program design, and food systems, the Reinvestment Fund has produced a body of research that advances collective knowledge about opportunities and gaps. The Reinvestment Fund also called for CDFI Food Systems Lending Peer Meetings to learn and advocate towards building the area of ​​expertise and resources for investment in food systems projects and retail food access. Essentially, moving towards a more equitable food system will require widespread and ongoing collaboration between stakeholders and organizations, and the distribution of knowledge and tangible resources to marginalized communities through organized efforts.

America’s Healthy Food Funding Initiative

Funding food retailers and other food system businesses to develop, regenerate and expand historically marginalized communities is one effective approach to addressing inequalities in the nation’s food system. These investments help retailers increase food availability and access in underserved communities while also contributing to local economies. The US Healthy Food Funding Initiative (HFFI) is a national program that embraces this framework by providing capital, in the form of grant money and technical assistance, to retail food organizations and non-retail food companies in disadvantaged areas. HFFI is a public-private partnership managed by the Reinvestment Fund on behalf of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development to improve access to healthy food in disadvantaged areas that was created under the 2014 Agriculture Act and reauthorized in 2018. Since then, the program has distributed 4.8 $1 million in assistance to 43 food access projects, including grantees in 23 states and technical assistance recipients in 12 states.

Through HFFI, organizations and entrepreneurs receive grant money and technical assistance to address food access gaps in their communities. A variety of retail and non-retail food establishments qualify for financing, including independent grocers, alternative models – such as virtual and mobile markets – and other businesses looking for upfront capital to support project development, renovation or expansion. Grant funds may be used for a variety of project needs such as pre-development necessities, one-time fees, concessional costs, construction, equipment, and materials, or as part of a total capital project that includes debt and/or local economic development incentives. Locally in Georgia, the Albany Department of Community and Economic Development is using a $150,000 HFFI award to bring an affordable, independent grocery store with a low-cost business model to the community. The South Albany community lost its grocery store in 2018 and was designated a US Department of Agriculture Low-Income Low-Income District. the new Food at a lower price It will make it easy to access healthy food locally as well as during construction New Jobs.

To be eligible for HFFI, retail food businesses must accept SNAP benefits. More than 42 million Americans are on low incomes Receiving SNAP Benefits Retailers serving low-income communities rely on SNAP sales as a primary source of revenue for their operations. As SNAP benefits increase for families in the United States following the recent update of the Thrifty Food Plan for the first time since its inception, efforts to expand retailers that accept SNAP benefits through programs like HFFI complement the updated plan to increase access to food among disadvantaged populations. HFFI funds target projects in disadvantaged regions, including the USDA Low Income, Low Access (LILA) Regions, the reinvestment fund Limited supermarket access (LSA) In order to address geographical disparities in access to healthy food that are rooted in historical underinvestment and that disproportionately affect low-income populations, people of color, and rural communities. Addressing the issue of food access to disadvantaged populations by increasing the affordability and accessibility of food is closely linked to national efforts to reduce food insecurity. Increasing access to food reduces some of the barriers families face that may lead to persistent and unhealthy eating patterns.

Map of the Atlanta area showing disadvantaged areas in purple, which are eligible for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Targeted Small Grants Program.

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Affordability, access, collaboration and regional efforts play a role in addressing food grievances from a societal and economic well-being perspective, according to food systems expert Susan Pavlin, who co-founded TAPROOT, served as founding director of the Southeast Common Market and is a member of the national expert advisory body HFFI. “The most powerful thing we can do as a country and within the region is to work together to build a regional food economy where food is sourced from people in [regional] Communities,” Pavlin explains. “If we can work together to build infrastructure, access … to make food a regional product, we will also be creating more wealth in the community.”

Making the food system inclusive of all communities across the country is a complex task that requires multifaceted tools and approaches at different levels, from grassroots organizations to large corporations and government entities. Pavlin also emphasizes the important role of government agencies in this work: “The Farm Act is a great example of all sorts of influences in determining what foods people can access through subsidy programs. Programs like HFFI, which are purposefully looking at how to break down some of these barriers to increase access. to healthy food in retail settings, are incredibly good nationwide programs that can really make a difference.”

Pavlin also noted that states and counties also have a big say in how this money is distributed. States and territories must work in partnership with the federal government to make sure these resources go where they are needed. Federal programs such as HFFI provide a framework for cross-sectoral partnerships that invest in the food systems of historically marginalized communities through the distribution of financial and technical tools with regional impacts. With expanded funding from the federal government, HFFI can support the expansion of partnerships, capacity building, and lending throughout the food systems landscape that will increase the distribution of resources to underserved communities.

It is undeniable that piloting food access projects, such as those funded by HFFI, and addressing issues of food insecurity in disadvantaged communities, begins with basic conversations at the local level about the gaps and needs identified by the people who live and work directly in these communities. Dialogues and efforts at the neighborhood, municipal and state levels, such as Georgia Senate Efforts to Study State Food Access, forms the basis for assessing need, developing policies and allocating resources that can create more sustainable and equitable local food systems. Ultimately, by investing in fair and equitable diets across the country through collaboration, partnerships, data, and financial tools, we are building the essential infrastructure for healthy, economically resilient communities.


The 2021 cycle of the US Healthy Food Funding Initiative – Targeted Small Grants Program is now accepting applications for grant funding. To download the complete application for applications and apply online, please visit

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