Testimony of Ed Lazere at the Public Hearing on the Food, Environmental, and Economic Development in the District of Columbia Act

Chairman Brown, Chairman Cheh, and members of the committees, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  My name is Ed Lazere, and I am the executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.  DCFPI engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on policies that affect low- and moderate-income residents.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this important bill.  Increasing access to healthy food in low-income and underserved areas of the District is critically important to improving the health of DC residents.

I have several recommendations that I hope will further the goals of this bill.  The first is to more narrowly target the areas of the city where incentives under the FEED-DC Act would apply.  The bill designates enterprise zones as targets for development of healthy food access, but these zones cover a wide swath of the city.  An alternative approach would be to designate low-moderate income areas using Qualified Census Tracts, and to require that FEED-DC incentives be available only in areas with below-average access to healthy food.  Using these criteria, the city could map out specific areas of the city that would be targeted.  This would be good both for city officials that will implement the law and for retailers that need to know where they can qualify for assistance.

A related option would be to commission a study to identify “food deserts” and to set goals for each area.  Does a given area need a full service supermarket, or would a smaller store be adequate?  Is there space to build a new store, or would renovating one or more existing stores be preferable?  Given that attracting a major grocery chain to open a supermarket may not work in every area, such an approach may make sense.  A targeted approach also would help the city identify types of stores that would be most likely to provide healthy food at an affordable cost.  Simply putting a grocery store in a food desert may not improve diets much if the healthy food is unaffordable.

We also recommend limiting DC’s current supermarket tax incentives to the areas identified as a result of the FEED-DC bill.  If an area is not a food desert, it should not receive DC’s generous tax incentives.   This action would potentially raise revenues to help meet the costs of FEED-DC.

Other important questions to consider include identifying the right entity to implement this bill.  Because DC is small relative to other areas that have tried such an approach, such as Pennsylvania, it may be that a DC agency can handle implementation.  At the same time, a non-government entity with specialized expertise may be needed to meet the bill’s goals.

Whether managed by a DC agency or not, the bill should maintain its plan for a competitive process. This would help ensure that DC funds are used in an efficient manner and that they achieve the bill’s goals as well as possible.  A competitive process could help ensure, for example, that new retailers in food deserts provide healthy food as affordably as possible and that healthy foods are placed prominently in the store.   

Finally, the bill should identify more clearly the kinds of subsidies available, to both full-service stores and corners stores, including some caps on the total subsidies a store could receive.

The FEED-DC bill is an important component of efforts to increase access to healthy food in DC.  It is an important complement to feeding programs and nutrition education, including the Healthy Schools Act.  Further efforts to make healthy foods more affordable than unhealthy ones also should be considered as part of this reform movement.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.   I am happy to answer any questions.