Legislation Seeks to Create Self-Sustaining Loan and Grant Fund
TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester) to expand fresh food options in the state’s food deserts – areas that lack access to affordable, healthy foods – by helping to meet the financing needs of supermarket operators seeking to locate in urban areas has been approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
The legislation (S-3089), called the “Fresh Food Access Act,” is designed to provide fresh food options to residents in urban areas by creating a program to facilitate the award of loans and grants to supermarket operators looking to open in areas where there is a demonstrated lack of availability of fresh foods.
“For many residents, obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables is as simple as taking a quick drive to one of the neighborhood grocery stores. But in some of our cities, large grocery stores don’t exist,” said Senator Norcross. “This financing initiative will help supermarket operators open in our urban areas, creating access to fresh and healthy foods for residents where availability is currently limited. It will also help to spur economic development in our urban areas and create much-needed jobs.”
The measure expands the New Jersey Food Access Initiative operating within the Economic Development Authority. The initiative currently provides below market rate loans to supermarket operators that meet certain conditions. However, many of the loans offered by the initiative are at close to market rate interest because the initiative’s seed money, both from EDA and other sources, is not revolving; it has a cost attached that must be repaid.
The Senator’s legislation would establish in statute the New Jersey Food Access Initiative and redirect 5 percent of sales tax revenue collected in Urban Enterprise Zones to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority for the initiative. The revenue collected in UEZs – which is intended for economic development projects in urban areas, but has been diverted to the general fund in the last two state budgets – would be redirected to the Food Access Initiative for five years. Under the bill, 80 percent of the revenue directed to the initiative would support loans and 20 percent would support grants. The grant funding would provide loan recipients with direct funds or interest rate subsidies in order to increase the effectiveness of the program. The intent is for the fund to become self-sustaining with revenue from the repayment of loans.
“Providing financial assistance to supermarket operators will give business owners the extra help they need to open their doors in areas where they are unable to access traditional financing methods,” said Senator Norcross. “This program will also provide a boost to economic development efforts in cities that are in desperate need of business growth and permanent jobs.”
The initiative will specifically target areas where infrastructure costs and credit needs are often unmet by conventional financing institutions. Loans and grants would be administered based on three primary considerations: supplying the areas with the greatest need for fresh food, generating the most jobs and supporting businesses that will become self-sustaining and successful without the need for any further assistance. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the bill Thursday by a vote of 8-3. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
Senator Norcross is also the sponsor of legislation (S-2728) to bring fresh foods to urban areas through mobile fresh produce markets. Under the bill, the Department of Agriculture would establish a mobile farmers’ market program, called the “New Jersey Fresh Mobiles Initiative,” to be conducted in at least three cities – one in each the northern, central and southern regions of the state – in which residents are unable to obtain adequate access to nutritious foods. State-authorized vendors would transport fresh fruit and vegetables into state-designated urban food desert communities, where the produce would be sold. Vendors would be required to accept government-issued food vouchers from any state or federal nutrition or income assistance program as payment. The bill passed the Assembly in March. The measure passed the Senate unanimously on Sept. 26, and awaits a final vote by the Assembly to approve technical changes.