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Metro East lawmakers praise initiative to open independent grocers in food deserts

Produce at walmart
Abbie Fentress Swanson
Harvest Public Media
A part of his $49.6 billion budget released earlier this week, Gov. JB Pritzker’s proposal, the Illinois Grocery Initiative, includes an additional $2 million to help grocers purchase local food from Illinois farmers.

Local lawmakers say they’re excited about Gov. JB Pritzker’s $20 million proposal to increase food access in underserved areas around the state.

The Illinois Grocery Initiative would provide financial assistance to municipalities or local independent grocery stores opening in food deserts — whether rural or urban.

“It would be huge,” said Kevin Schmidt, R-Millstadt, who represents the 114th District. Schmidt’s newly drawn district covers a wide-ranging part of the Metro East: from rural areas like New Athens to urban communities by the Mississippi River.

“East St. Louis, that is a food desert,” Schmidt said. “It is a huge burden on the people.”

Schmidt pointed out that neighboring Cahokia Heights has a Walmart but said that’s not good enough.

Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, agreed with Schmidt. The Republican whip said getting grocery stores in food deserts is a worthwhile priority.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois state Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Springfield. "Grocery store deserts, they're are all over rural Illinois." Tracy said. The Adams County Republican grew up in deep southern Illinois and noted the importance of healthy food in communities where it can be scarce.

Pritzker’s initiative, which was included in his $49.6 billion budget released earlier this week, includes an additional $2 million to help grocers purchase local food from Illinois farmers.

“I thought that was a great, innovative idea to promote Illinois agriculture,” said Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville.

Stuart’s 112th District, which stretches from Fairview Heights to Granite City and up to Edwardsville, is not considered a food desert.

If passed, Stuart said it will be important for local officials and business owners to think about those who rely on public transportation. People in her district who don't have a car could be food insecure even though they live within a few miles of grocery stores.

Stuart said she likes the governor’s proposal because it attacks the underlying problem when grocery chains leave.

“For whatever reason, they stop getting the tax incentives or it's not quite profitable enough,” Stuart said. “They have run everyone else out of town, and then they pick up stakes and they leave.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, gives his annual State of the State address on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Springfield.

When grocers leave, those communities are stuck in a bad place, she said. That sentiment was shared by Pritzker in his address.

“Government at the state and local level have tried hard to attract big retail food chains to neighborhoods that need them with tax incentives and flashy ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” Pritzker told lawmakers. “But after the cameras leave, often so do the commercial chains — leaving poorer rural and urban communities high and dry.”

The Illinois House and Senate will consider the governor’s budget proposals in the coming months. This year’s session is scheduled to run through mid-May.

Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said he’s excited to wade through all the line items, including the grocery initiative.

“Having access to good, healthy food is something that so many people take for granted that you don't really think about it every day,” he said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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