U.S. launches program to end "food deserts"

PHILADELPHIA, Feb 19 (Reuters Life) - The U.S. government launched a program on Friday to encourage food retailers to operate supermarkets in low-income areas in an effort to fight childhood obesity by increasing access to healthy food.

The Obama Administration said it would provide $400 million for its Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is modeled on a successful Pennsylvania program that in the last five years has led to more than 80 supermarkets being set up in “food deserts” -- areas that were previously underserved by sellers of healthy food.

First Lady Michelle Obama said the new national program aims to eliminate food deserts -- where the only food sources are typically convenience stores or gas stations -- in the next seven years.

Speaking at a North Philadelphia elementary school, Mrs. Obama said the program is needed to work alongside efforts to improve the quality of food in schools, and to educate the public in healthy eating.

“We can have the best school lunch program in the world but if dinner is something off the shelf of a gas station, all our efforts will go to waste,” she said at a ceremony that also included Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Mrs. Obama praised the Pennsylvania program which she said should become a model for the national initiative.

“If you can do it here, we can do it around the country,” she said after touring a local grocery store set up with funds from Pennsylvania’s program in a neighborhood that had no supermarket for more than a decade.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the government will provide $250 million in tax credits to encourage food retailers to set up food stores in areas that would not otherwise be served by supermarkets.

The program is being aided by the Department of Agriculture which plans to provide $50 million to leverage some $150 million in loans, grants and promotions to boost healthy-food programs in local communities.

The program is designed to work along with the First Lady’s recently launched “Let’s Move” campaign which aims to end an epidemic of childhood obesity by increasing understanding of nutrition, encouraging schools to provide healthier food, and promoting exercise.

Lack of healthy food also leads to higher levels of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, officials said.

The Pennsylvania program has succeeded in giving some 400,000 people access to healthy food, and has created about 5,000 jobs, Mrs. Obama said.