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Big-City Mayors Dig In To Food Policy

Food policy can sound like a dreary enterprise best left to Washington, D.C. But big-city mayors are starting to see local food policy as a key step in getting healthy, affordable food to their constituents.

This afternoon, the mayors of America are meeting in Washington, D.C., to launch their own food policy task force. The goal is to share information on projects that work, and also make sure that federal food policy doesn't muck up those local efforts.

Baltimore is one of a handful of cities, along with New York and San Francisco, that have crafted their own food policy initiatives. Baltimore's effort started in 2009, and involves the city departments of health, planning, sustainability and development, as well as an advisory group of 30-plus organizations.

"It's starting to become a growing movement, which is exactly what we would like it to be," says Holly Freishtat, director of Baltimore's Food Policy Initiative. The city's food priorities include a customized map of food deserts that includes corner stores and convenience markets, which play a big role in the city's food scene. About 20 percent of the city's residents live in food deserts, without access to fresh food.

That map is being used to guide the growth of projects like the Virtual Supermarket, which lets low-income residents order groceries online and pick them up at their neighborhood library. Freishtat told The Salt that this year the Virtual Supermarket will be expanded to include pickup points in public housing and senior housing. (Here's an NPR story on the program's 2010 launch.)

It's successes like the Virtual Supermarket that are pushing the mayors to get involved in federal food policy. Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, recipients of food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) can't use those benefits online. So it's illegal for them to use standard online grocery delivery services. The Virtual Supermarket gets around that by having recipients pay when they actually pick up the goods.

"One of the conversations we'll be having is wanting to work with USDA and grocery retailers to overcome the policy barriers and technology barriers to online SNAP benefits," Freishtat says.

Urban dwellers might think that USDA doesn't have much to offer them. That would be wrong, Freishtat says. Baltimore has reaped more than $1 billion in benefits associated with farm bill programs over the past five years. Lobbying to make sure that the 2012 farm bill reauthorization works for the benefit of urban food initiatives, she says, "is the next step."

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