By David Pendered
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information on the use of New Market Tax Credits to promote access to healthy food in low-income communities.
Atlanta’s food deserts are one of the problems that Atlanta’s development officials intend to address with a portion of a $30 million federal grant the city has received.
An incredible swath of Atlanta, generally located south of Buckhead, meets the definition a food desert, according to a mapping tool of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The definition boils down to access to food – distance from food stores and access to transportation.
Atlanta’s food desert program is to join a growing effort nationwide to expand access to healthy food with assistance from the New Markets Tax Credit program. The tax credit program was started in 2000 by the Treasury Department to help fight blight and create jobs.
As early as 2004, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative used New Market Tax Credits and other revenues to promote access to fresh food in low-income neighborhoods. Similar programs have been started in states including New York, California and New Jersey, according to PFFFI.
The city will oversee the program through an affiliate of its development arm, Invest Atlanta.
In the past, Atlanta has used the $90 million received from the New Market Tax Credits to support real estate development and assist small businesses, according to the Treasury Department.
For the first time this year, healthy food financing was part of the New Market Tax Credit program. There wasn’t a specific category for such programs, but applicants were asked if they intended to allocate any money to healthy food financing – and 70 of the 85 winning applicants said they did.
The program is ambitious. Its stated goals include:
“Increasing the distribution of agricultural products; developing and equipping grocery stores; and strengthening producer-to-consumer relationships. In addition, the financing of these projects brings needed economic development and job creation to these underserved communities.”
The difficulty of achieving these goals is evident to anyone who wanted to buy groceries at the Historic Westside Village retail center, located near the Atlanta University Center. The center offers one of the few full service grocery outlets in a large area west of downtown Atlanta.
Publix kept its store open until 2010, although corporate officials said it never was financially viable. Walmart announced in December 2010 that it would open in the former Publix site, but the opening didn’t occur until January 2013.
Farther to the west, Walmart is building a store along Cascade Road, just west of I-285. The store will ease access in a food desert where shoppers have been commuting to Buckhead, Cobb and even Douglas counties to buy groceries. The construction ends more than 20 years of talks about building a grocery store in the Cascade area.
Atlanta hasn’t identified any specific businesses or organizations that it intends to help by provided tax credits. The Treasury Department announced the award Monday to a for-profit company Atlanta’s development arm created in 2005 to handle the transactions: Atlanta Emerging Markets, Inc.
But the city does outline the vision for the its use of the New Markets Tax Credit grant in the profile it provided to the Treasury Department:
- “Atlanta Emerging Markets, Inc. will use its 2012 NMTC Allocation to offer below-market financing to finance healthcare, healthy foods, business expansion, and community facility projects in support of integrated neighborhood development initiatives. The CDE intends to offer equity equivalent terms and conditions, senior debt, and/or subordinated debt.”
The NMTC program provides taxpayers with a credit against federal income taxes. More details are available at the program’s website.