Sept. 30 2009 12:00 AM

A new tax incentive may spur grocery stores to open in food deserts

For westside Lansing resident Marvin Harden, there are not any grocery stores in his neighborhood that offer a bounty of fresh produce, meats and dairy products.

“You have to drive out to Wal-Mart, or Meijer, or Kroger,” he said. “If you ain’t got no car, you got to (take the bus) and that’s about three or four hours.”

Hardens neighborhood is what experts would call a “food desert,” an area with little or no access to healthy food. These areas are often saturated with unhealthy fast foods outlets. Between Harden’s home near the corner of Capitol and Oakland avenues, and Mt. Hope Avenue — an area that contains most of downtown Lansing and the west side neighborhood — there isn’t one full service grocery store to be found.

Like Harden’s neighborhood, many other parts of Lansing qualify as food deserts.

Within three miles of Harden’s home, there are two Kroger stores and the Vallarta market. In the same area are 11 fast food joints.

Nearby, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Oakland Avenue, is Eric’s Markett, but its selection of fresh produce is relatively slim. There are two Quality Dairy stores nearby, but those, too, offer little in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables.

At least two studies have been released over the last few years on food deserts. One was by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another by the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group. The studies found that premature deaths related to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer trend higher for people who live in food deserts.

"Too many environments contribute to unhealthy eating and inactivity making unhealthy choices the easier choices. Marketing practices lure people into poor eating habits and many neighborhoods lack grocers who sell fresh produce and other healthy options," wrote James McCurtis, public information officer for the DoCH, in an email.

While certain options are in place to provide residents with fresh fruits and vegetables, these options have limits. Community Supported Agriculture, a national program with operations in Michigan that provides a weekly allotment of produce, does not function year round. The Lansing City Market has seasonal hours.

Last year, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Township, was signed into law that provides tax abatements for up to 10 years for grocery stores that provide fresh fruits and vegetables and meats in underserved areas.

The state Department of Agriculture with the U.S. Census Bureau used census tracts to see which areas qualified. (An area must have a population of low and moderate-income residents, a below-average density of grocery stores and travel limitations to grocery stores.) According to the data, there is very little of Lansing that does not qualify.

“If one is going to take advantage of the tax incentive for grocery stores, that store is going to have to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, going to have to offer dairy products, it’s going to have to offer both fresh and frozen meat and poultry, at a minimum. We’re not going to allow liquor stores to say, ‘OK, well, here’s a banana, here’s a lime,’ and think that they’re going to get away with, ‘Well, we’ve done our fruits and vegetables,’ and they want the tax incentive now,” said Robert Craig, director of the Agriculture Development Division of the Department of Agriculture.

The law stipulates that 75 percent of the store, based on square footage, must be used for fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. This would exclude liquor stores offering small amounts of produce, and large chains such as Meijer and Wal- Mart. Retailers that focus on groceries, such as Kroger and Aldi, would qualify.

Meijer is testing smaller stores that contain mostly groceries with a small amount of general merchandise. A spokesman for Meijer declined to comment on future plans for Lansing.

In order to apply for the incentive a retailer must submit an application to their local government. The application must then be approved by the Department of Treasury and the Department of Agriculture.

No action has been taken over the last year since the bill was passed because the Department of Agriculture needed time to find out which areas qualified. No applications for the tax credit have been received so far, but the program only became open to receiving applications recently.

When it comes to large corporations’ plans regarding the new tax incentive, mum’s the word. Dave Finet, general manager of the East Lansing Food Co-op was more candid.

“I think certainly, in this current economic climate, the challenges are bigger for that kind of project,” said Finet who is somewhat skeptical of this incentive’s ability to succeed.

“There is going to be a lot of hesitancy for folks to undertake that kind of project. People weren’t rushing to go into those areas when the economy was stronger.”

Finet had created an expansion committee to look into opening up in Lansing over a year ago.

Still, he says he needs more information about this program before he makes any decisions. “This sort of incentive might be the tipping point to help us make the decision to expand,” Finet said.