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Healthy food business development

What is it?

In healthy communities, residents have access to all the resources they need to thrive — including fresh, healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food — regardless of race or income. Yet in too many communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, the only places to buy food are fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell unhealthy, sugary, processed foods.

In other cases, there are no nearby food vendors of any kind. Not surprisingly, residents living in underserved neighborhoods and communities without access to high-quality fresh food face higher risks of obesity, diabetes, and other poor health outcomes. However, local leaders and advocates across the country are working to expand access to healthy, fresh, affordable food for people of color and low-income neighborhoods by supporting food businesses across the entire food system – from grocery stores, food cooperatives, and farmers’ markets, to food hubs, distribution networks, and food recovery enterprises.

These efforts not only make it easier for people to access healthy food but also support local and regional economic development. Some healthy food business policies incentivize local hiring, bringing needed job opportunities for residents. The development of a grocery store typically creates between 100 and 200 permanent jobs in addition to providing temporary construction jobs. These stores also generate increased foot traffic that attracts complementary retailers like pharmacies and restaurants to the neighborhood, generating more jobs and local sales tax revenue. Other healthy food business models create fewer jobs but provide other benefits, such as the opportunity for food cooperative workers to gain employee ownership. In addition to creating or retaining jobs, new food retailers support the local economy when they purchase goods and services from other local businesses, including producers and distributors.

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed on the right, visit the Healthy Food Access Portal for more resources on healthy food business development.

Who implements it?

  • Local elected officials and staff can take an active role in convening conversations about local food access needs and champion efforts to create new local healthy food business development programs by dedicating resources, offering technical assistance, providing land, and conducting outreach to neighborhood residents, existing food retailers, and prospective new businesses.
  • Community leaders and advocates play a key role in advocating for change, framing the problem based on local perspectives and experiences, and identifying solutions that meet community goals and are consistent with the local community’s values and interests.
  • Local farmers and farming organizations can be excellent resources for communities interested in developing farmers’ market, food hubs, and strengthen links between producers and retailers

Key considerations

Stakeholders can come together to identify the best healthy food options for a community, and identify barriers and ways to overcome them. Local leaders working to increase healthy food access options must address various policy and organizational considerations.

  • Organizing broad and diverse coalitions: Children’s advocates, food security advocates, public health and economic development professionals, government officials, supermarket industry representatives, and community-based groups are often key participants in working with local communities to identify healthy food needs and opportunities.
  • Planning a community approach: City leaders and advocates should consider starting with a broad coalition focused on food retail or another component of the food system, and then moving to a smaller, more targeted task force. Leaders can also incorporate healthy food business development into existing planning processes, public health assessments, and other community-engagement conversations.
  • Understanding local community needs, priorities, and opportunities: Every community has unique assets, challenges, and goals. Some communities have found it helpful to conduct community food assessments (CFAs), or other participatory research that examines a community’s access to healthy food. Leakage studies can help advocates determine the unmet food retail needs of a given neighborhood – and the retail dollars residents are spending outside of their community.
  • Determining the right solutions: Communities should consider and select a range of solutions to support healthy food access efforts. Key strategies might include financing, zoning incentives, land use strategies, and streamlined permitting processes. The Healthy Food Access Portal provides many helpful resources on policy solutions, and Food Policy Networks provides examples of model ordinances and legislation.
  • Evaluating progress: Policymakers and other local leaders should identify specific goals and prioritize their efforts accordingly, educating community members about new initiatives and establishing data and tracking systems to evaluate the effectiveness of their initiatives.

Where is it working?

Local healthy food financing initiatives have been developed in many places, along with a few successful healthy food retail initiatives that were not focused on financing.

  • In New Orleans, city officials partnered with Hope Enterprise Corporation and The Food Trust to launch the New Orleans Fresh Food Retailers Initiative. The program was seeded with $7 million in Community Development Block Grant funds, which leveraged additional financing. The initiative has supported three local projects to date, including a Black-owned grocery store that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and needed investment to reopen. The store now provides 65 local jobs, fresh food in a former food desert, and a bank branch.
  • In New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spearheaded the NYC Green Cart initiative. With a long waiting list of entrepreneurs who wanted to operate food carts, the city decided to offer a streamlined process for those vendors willing to operate carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food. Because of the initiative, 142 green carts operate in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food. Customers report increased consumption of healthy food and 80 percent of the vendors report that their carts are “very or somewhat profitable” while 75 percent believe the experience will help them open a larger business.