Tell the truth.
Didn’t you feel annoyed and inconvenienced the last time a bare cupboard forced you to make a trip to the supermarket down the street?
If that is all you felt, you are among the more fortunate Mississippians.
For more than a quarter of your fellow Magnolia State citizens – predominantly those in economically distressed communities and regions – an empty food shelf is not something remedied in the time it takes to play a quarter in football. Rather, it’s a serious situation that can leave whole families struggling to have food on their tables. In too many instances, what is put there is sugar-and-flour-filled processed food from a dollar chain store or convenience store.
Grocery retailers don’t go where they can’t make money. Why else would the Mississippi Delta have only one supermarket for every 190 square miles?
Lowering their costs of doing business, including what they pay in income taxes, could help grocery executives look differently at under-served markets across Mississippi. But leaders in the Mississippi House of Representatives have made sure this does not happen, at least this year.
This was going to be the year Mississippi did something to increase access to healthy foods. Instead, the House in the past few days killed Senate Bill 2840 after the legislation passed the Senate overwhelmingly.
We’re sure House leaders can offer up some sort of excuse for turning their backs on those in need. But Mississippians shouldn’t buy whatever they are selling – not when they’ve cleared the way in the last couple years to hand out $155 million in subsidies to three discount shopping malls through sales tax rebates for so-called “cultural attractions,” i.e., retail centers masquerading as contributors to Mississippi culture.
The incentives in the now-dead SB 2840, when packaged with local incentives such as cheap or no-cost land for building and help with infrastructure, would have given Mississippi a strong start in addressing a problem that otherwise promises to grow far worse.
Legislators said mom-and-pop food retailers were worried that SB 2840 would invite publicly subsidized competition. That was not so. The existing mom-and-pop store would show up in the North American Industry Classification System. If assessed as a genuine grocery retailer, the independent store’s presence would have rendered a new store in the vicinity ineligible for the incentives.
So what have House leaders left us with?
Start with Mississippi’s alarming growth in so-called food deserts. It is occurring in both urban and rural communities. South Jackson lost the Terry Road Kroger in February and tiny Utica lost its lone supermarket in November.
Beyond despair borne by people with no means of obtaining fresh meats, vegetables and fruits, living in a food desert exposes Mississippians to a host of nutrition related diseases, including high rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related disease.
The consequences and costs for today’s Mississippi are disturbing enough. But consider that over the next decade and a half, the number of those awful consequences and the dollars required to deal with them will double.
Also consider that nearly 35 percent of Mississippi’s adults and 22 percent of its children are obese, and these rates are expected to double by 2030, reported the Mississippi Grocery Access Task Force, a group of Mississippi food retailers, wholesalers, educators and health policy experts that produced a 2012 report titled “Stimulating Grocery Retail in Mississippi.”
“This situation is pressing: Mississippi spends nearly $1 billion each year treating obesity-related diseases,” the report warned.
That $1 billion is projected to rise to $3.9 billion a year by 2018 if current trends continue, the report said.
On the other hand, a mere 5 percent reduction in the state’s average body mass index (BMI)—a useful measure of overweight and obesity—could save Mississippi $6 billion over the next 20 years, according to the report.
The 50-member task force was blunt in its finding and in its call for action now instead of later. “If we are serious about reducing rates of obesity and the amount of money spent on the epidemic in Mississippi, we should improve people’s access to healthy foods,” said the grocery access task force co-chaired by Dr. John E. Hall, director of the Mississippi Center for Obesity Research, and Jeff Olson, director of real estate for the Associated Wholesale Grocers’ Southeast Region.
The report noted other benefits: “Many of these same communities have the highest levels of unemployment in the state. Increasing fresh food retail in underserved communities will also stimulate local economic development. Expanded grocery retail has the added benefit of creating or retaining hundreds, if not thousands, of quality jobs.”
Mississippi’s House has prolonged not only misery for Mississippians with its rejection of SB 2840. Its leaders have as well wasted an opportunity to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs.
Their sincerity should be seriously questioned the next time you hear them say they share the priorities of everyday Mississippians. Ask them to defend giving hundreds of millions of state help to foster the spread of discount shopping malls but not a dime to slow the spread of food deserts and the despair they bring.
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