U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said he expects few people realize that an estimated 37 million Americans — more than a million of them Virginians — live in food deserts.

“It’s a pretty unfortunate commentary that in 2019 this many Americans, this many Virginians, have to go to bed hungry and not have access to quality food,” he said.

On Wednesday, Warner visited Feeding America Southwest Virginia in Salem to speak about food deserts and legislation he introduced to incentivize food service providers, from grocery stores to nonprofits, to establish a presence in these areas.

Individuals are considered to live in a food desert if, in a rural area, they are not within 10 miles of a grocery store or, in an urban area, they are not within one mile of a grocer.

The Virginia Democrat first introduced the federal bill, which he noted has bipartisan support, in 2017 and plans to reintroduce it in March.

Separate state legislation that would have established a $5 million fund for the construction, expansion and rehabilitation of grocery stores in food deserts throughout Virginia was killed in the General Assembly this month.

Warner thanked Feeding America Southwest Virginia for its efforts to provide food to federal employees during the 35-day government shutdown. The organization distributed food to Transportation Security Administration workers at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and federal prison employees in Lee County.

“The recent government shutdown showed how many people are simply one paycheck away from falling into food vulnerability,” Warner said.

The senator described the shutdown as one of his most frustrating experiences in politics. Warner said he was disappointed that the president would use a government shutdown as a negotiation tool.

“We should never have been in a circumstance where we’re shutting down government over a political dispute,” he said.

But on Wednesday, Warner shifted his attention to a different national emergency: food insecurity and food deserts.

His legislation would provide tax credits to companies that build new grocery stores or retrofit an existing store’s healthy food sections. It also would provide grants to food banks that build permanent structures or to temporary access merchants like mobile markets and farmers markets.

When she served as dean of Virginia State University’s college of agriculture in 2012, Jewel Bronaugh received a letter asking her to assist in a study on food deserts.

“That issue was so new in 2012 people were calling it food desserts,” said Bronaugh, who now serves as Virginia’s commissioner of agriculture.

Bronaugh said she’s glad to see more collaborative efforts to address food deserts, including Warner’s bill.

She emphasized that the issue is centered around access.

“Agriculture is the number one industry in the state of Virginia,” she said. “We produce enough food to feed everyone in the state. But it’s not in the right place at the right time with the people who need it.”

Liz Ackley, a faculty member at Roanoke College, has been involved with efforts to establish a grocery store in northwest Roanoke. She said it’s important to think about how to make grocery stores in food deserts sustainable. Workforce development initiatives can help with that, Ackley said. She’s seen some models where stores are required to hire a certain portion of their employees from within the community.

“We noticed that without that piece, there can be a lack of ownership in the community and so the likelihood that folks will shop there tends to go down,” Ackley said.

Warner noted the growing popularity of food trucks, and asked whether mobile solutions might exist.

Allison McGee, with Kroger, said today’s customer is looking for convenience, like online shopping or grocery delivery. As a result, grocers are investing less in brick and mortar stores.

She said the company has been experimenting with mobile food pantries. In Richmond and in Lynchburg, McGee said Kroger purchased a van and partnered with nonprofits to deliver food directly to underserved communities.

Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said there’s still value in brick and mortar stores.

“Even with the growth of e-commerce, we can never undervalue the community connection of being in the grocery store,” he said.

It’s important to address food deserts simultaneously with issues like poverty, homelessness and crime, Cobb said, as they are all connected. He pointed to the Community Solutions Center as a prime example.

The Community Solutions Center is a food bank and community meeting space housed in a former nightclub where there had been previous episodes of violence. The center also offers a culinary program that teaches job skills to the underemployed and unemployed.

Warner expressed interest in visiting the Community Solutions Center.

At the end of the discussion, Pamela Irvine, president and CEO of Feeding America Southwest Virginia, thanked Warner for “always thinking about those individuals that are at a distance” from Washington.

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Casey Fabris covers Franklin County, Rocky Mount and Ferrum College.

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