Access to Healthy Food in Delaware Support Through Local-Level Policy Initiatives

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 41 million U.S. citizens lived in food insecure households in 2016. Across Delaware, 61 percent of the population lives in a census tract without a grocery store. More importantly, people struggle to access healthy food more than other food. Food insecurity and unhealthy diets are both linked to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other chronic illnesses. Many barriers found in public policies, the built environment, and sprawling land use patterns make it difficult for people to access healthy food. When healthy food is unaffordable, inaccessible, or unavailable, people rely on unhealthy food choices.

Food access may be a problem nationwide and statewide, but many of the most effective initiatives to improve food access occur on the local level. Locally grown food not only helps address food insecurity, but it also improves local economies and helps the environment.

Beyond encouraging locally grown food, Delaware local governments can support access to healthy food through comprehensive plans and community design, policies and regulatory tools, and local partnerships.

Improving Healthy Food Accessibility

Studies by Policy Link and The Food Trust indicate that food insecurity issues predominantly impact low-income communities, urban communities of color, and rural communities in remote areas not served by transit. Evidence also suggests that the lack of healthy food access is associated with health issues such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and social and health inequity. An interagency coalition in Massachusetts notes that access “can be defined to include not only proximity to a full-line grocery store, but also convenient transportation options for people of all ages and abilities, and consideration of economic and cultural factors that drive food purchasing choices.”

The link between healthy food access and transportation is also well documented. Lack of transportation to full-line food retailers pose significant challenges to underserved communities. If safe, affordable transportation options are unavailable, the purchase of food may be limited to unhealthy corner/convenience stores. Even in areas where public health interventions have improved healthy food in corner/convenience stores, people will not be able to purchase affordable, high-quality food if they cannot safely walk, drive, or take public transportation to those stores.

Planning Initiatives

In Delaware, local governments are required to develop and regularly update comprehensive (land use) plans, which serve as a blueprint for growth and development. Comprehensive plans provide a foundation to plan for complete and healthy communities that promote healthy lifestyles, economic growth, and sustainability through an integrated approach to transportation, land use, and community design.

Delaware Plan4Health, an American Planning Association project, has created a model to connect health and community planning processes in Kent County, Delaware, through policies, partnerships, and place-based programs. Jurisdictions statewide can adapt and incorporate these guidelines into their planning processes to combat two determinants of chronic disease—lack of physical activity and lack of access to nutritious foods. Developed by synthesizing the recommendations in the Delaware Plan4Health model and other innovative planning strategies around the country, the following planning strategies can help communities create environments with more equitable access to healthy food. Each of the overarching planning strategies detailed below can be further supported by implementing policies in the following sections.

Include Food Access in the Planning Process

For local governments in Delaware, planning plays an integral role in establishing a community’s goals and implementing practical strategies to achieve these goals through land use planning, community design, and the public policy framework. As such, if a community envisions a future with more equitable access to healthy food, incorporating food access into planning practices is a crucial step toward building this vision. Through Plan4Health, the City of Dover and the Kent County government integrated health and equity concepts into comprehensive plan updates, which serve as excellent models of food access planning. To incorporate food access into the planning process, communities can:

  • Integrate healthy food access into comprehensive plan updates, including goals related to transportation and land development.
  • Adopt a “health in all policies” approach to planning which, according to the American Public Health Association and Public Health Institute, emphasizes “A collaborative approach to improving the health of all people by incorporating health considerations into decision making across sectors and policy areas.”
  • View the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas to determine locations of food deserts—areas where residents have limited options for purchasing fresh foods—as a basis for land use plans.
  • Regularly assess and map factors related to healthy food access such as transportation routes to food sources and the number, type, and location of full-line or healthy food retailers.
  • To combat food swamps, areas where unhealthy food is available at higher rates than healthy food, create a healthy food zone that limits the proliferation of unhealthy food retailers near schools and other specified areas.

Foster Healthy Economic Development

Local governments can form partnerships with stakeholders to develop interventions for underserved communities and improve employment opportunities while expanding healthy food retail. These strategies can support economic development by boosting opportunities for local, non-chain retail businesses, encouraging residents to “buy local,” and establishing venues that reflect each community's unique sense of place. As a result, it becomes more economically viable for small-scale healthy food retailers, like mobile food trucks/units and farm stands, to establish business opportunities in locations where people work, live, and play. To foster healthy economic development, local governments can:

  • Encourage greater collaboration among local entities in understanding the possibilities of innovative food retail models to serve as economic development strategies.
  • Target investments in a food hub to connect local growers with local retailers like supermarkets, corner/convenience stores, and restaurants.
  • Allow community-based food sources, such as community gardens, farmers’ markets, mobile food trucks/units, and produce carts in more areas through a supportive regulatory environment and zoning practices like mixed-use zoning, temporary use permits, and overlay zoning.

Link Food Access and Transportation

A recent Plan4Health article notes that, “equitable transportation solutions such as community design allowing for safe walkability/bikeability and public transit allow opportunities to increase accessibility.” Sources of healthy food such as community gardens and local healthy food retailers are essential destinations for people everywhere, so promoting connectivity to these locations is crucial. To address transportation and food access, local governments can develop plans, policies, regulations, and design guidelines to:

  • Leverage participatory planning strategies, like charrettes, focus groups, community workshops, and surveys, to engage stakeholders and better understand transportation-related food access issues.
  • Support the expansion and improvement of public transportation services, particularly to/from underserved communities and full-line food retailers.
  • Identify and address first- and last-mile transit connectivity gaps and barriers walking, biking, and rolling to/from bus stops and hubs.
  • Plan for walkable/bikeable, mixed-use, and transit-oriented development through land use planning.

Active Transportation Initiatives

Active transportation, or non-motorized forms of transportation, is a healthy and affordable option for getting to grocery stores. Community design influences how feasible it is to walk and bike to places. To improve active transportation options, consult with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) and metropolitan planning organizations (i.e., WILMAPCO and Dover/Kent County MPO) and consider implementing the strategies below.

Improve Walkability

Walking plays an essential role in transportation, especially for those without vehicles. However, the built environment can create barriers to using walking to access important destinations like food retailers. Establishing safe, well-maintained, and connected pedestrian infrastructure can improve access to healthy food by making it possible for more people to travel to healthy food retailers. To improve walkability, communities can:

Improve Low-Stress Bikeability

For non-drivers and individuals who do not own vehicles, bicycling provides a mode of transportation by which they can travel faster and farther than by walking. From the need for safe, connected bike routes to the importance of bicycle facilities like bike racks, a community’s infrastructure plays a major role in supporting biking as a viable form of transportation to destinations like food retailers. Low-stress bikeability ensures that there are ways in which cyclists can easily access areas throughout a community, without being an extremely confident rider. To promote low-stress bikeability, local governments can:

  • Reference the Blueprint for a Bicycle-Friendly Delaware, which provides a series of innovative strategies for planning, designing, coordinating, and communicating to make safer and more well-connected bicycle networks.
  • Establish and maintain bike infrastructure and shared use paths.
  • Conduct bicycle-network planning to ensure that local bike routes and shared-use paths are well connected and low-stress for the average bicyclist.
  • Install bike racks at supermarkets and other food retail locations to encourage the use of biking for grocery shopping.
  • Use Planning for Complete Communities in Delaware: The Low-Stress Bikeability Assessment Tool as a guide to improve the low-stress bikeability for areas within a community.

For more information to help improve active transportation, visit the Walkability and Low-Stress Bikeability sections of the Delaware Complete Communities Planning Toolbox.

Improving Healthy Food Availability

Where can people buy healthy food? While supermarkets offer larger quantities and varieties of fruits and vegetables, many other types of food retail may be more accessible for residents who live far from grocery stores. Local governments can use policies to support local, small-scale vendors in their efforts to offer healthy food.

Local Food Retailer Initiatives

Communities adopt policies to help incentivize local-food retailers to sell more healthy foods. Some policies can help encourage the development of local businesses that are focused exclusively on the sale of healthy food. In addition to the initiatives listed below, each of the following retailers also benefits from the affordability initiatives contained in a later section.

Encourage Healthy Corner Stores

Corner stores, often referred to as convenience stores, are small, local stores that traditionally sell food (mostly unhealthy) alongside other amenities. In recent years, there has also been a proliferation of discount dollar stores that lack fresh produce. However, a variety of initiatives can encourage corner and discount dollar stores to make more fresh fruits and vegetables available. To promote healthy convenience stores, local governments can:

  • Make it easier for small food retailers to do business by minimizing regulatory and administrative burdens, simplifying the permitting and licensing process, and offering tax abatements for property improvements in designated districts or census tract areas.
  • Offer incentives to small shop owners such as technical assistance, community outreach, and access to façade improvement and loan programs.
  • Direct store owners who have not previously sold fresh produce to resources and small grants to help finance infrastructure and property improvements.
  • Require corner and discount dollar stores to carry certain healthy food items through business licensing laws. For an example, see the Staple Food Ordinance of Minneapolis.
  • Use land use regulations to limit the number of discount dollar stores from locating in close proximity to one another.

Promote Local Farm Stands and On-Farm Markets

Farm stands have played an important role in Delaware’s food system for generations. They allow consumers to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and other locally grown or made products directly from farmers who dedicate their lives to the growing season. To promote local farm stands, local governments can:

  • Consider offering free or reduced cost business licenses, specifically for farm-stand vendors (if the jurisdiction requires a business license in addition to a Delaware business license).
  • Expand the number of zoning districts that allow farm stands.
  • Provide information and application documents to “Become a Market Vendor” at a local farmers’ market via a local government’s website.
  • Provide website links to and promote the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s (DDA) Buy Local Delaware: Farmstands Guide and Delaware Grown website to learn where to buy and how to prepare locally grown produce.

Support Healthy Mobile-Food Retail

Healthy mobile-food retail includes the sale of produce, in either carts or vehicles, which are permitted to move around a jurisdiction. These vendors can reach residents who live in “food deserts” that lack access to affordable foods that make up a full and healthy diet, and/or neighborhoods without permanent grocery stores. To support mobile food retail, local governments can:

  • Use a combination of incentives and restrictions to get mobile-food carts in areas with the least access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Waive or exempt local permit or business fees, if required by a local jurisdiction, for mobile-food retailers that primarily sell produce.
  • Adopt ordinances to allow local produce vending and create an appropriate permit program, if local regulations prohibit mobile food vending.
  • Consider the adoption of ordinances or zoning code amendments that promote healthy food vendors and mobile produce vendors in low-income and geographically isolated neighborhoods.
  • Create policies, like this model ordinance by ChangeLab Solutions. It classifies produce carts as a separate type of business from other mobile food vendors, such that these carts can be licensed, supported, and regulated separately from other mobile vendors.

Community Market Initiatives

Though many community market initiatives are only offered on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, they have the potential to bring together larger groups of vendors than are present at individual local retail stores. Furthermore, community markets can focus exclusively on healthy foods and build relationships between local farmers and the community.

Support Farmers’ Markets

USDA defines farmers’ markets as “Two or more farmer-producers that sell their own agricultural products directly to the general public at a fixed location, which includes fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, and grains.” To promote farmers’ markets, local governments can:

  • Provide information and application documents to “Become a Market Vendor” via a local government’s website.
  • Use land use policies to promote, expand, and protect potential sites for farmers’ markets such as vacant city-owned land or unused parking lots.
  • Partner with schools, parks, libraries, and public and private property owners to host farmers’ markets in local neighborhoods.
  • Consider offering free or reduced cost business licenses, specifically for farmers’ markets (if the jurisdiction requires a business license in addition to a Delaware business license).
  • Provide links to and promote DDA’s Buy Local Delaware: Farmers’ Markets Guide and Delaware Grown on local government websites.

Promote Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

According to the USDA, in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) “members or ‘share-holders’ of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season.” CSAs offer a regular food supply, which helps ensure that families consistently have access to fruits and vegetables. To encourage CSAs, local governments can:

  • Amend zoning codes to allow for CSA pick-ups in more accessible areas within a jurisdiction. Often, CSA pick-ups are considered commercial usage even though payment may happen ahead of time.
  • Build partnerships with farms and assist with the permit process if there are no CSA programs locally. For more information, learn from King County, Washington’s experience.
  • Partner with farms and the community to establish CSA pick-ups on public property.
  • Offer to provide small reimbursements for city employees who participate in CSAs.
  • Partner with the local farms and food banks to establish programs that facilitate the donation to food banks of CSA boxes that aren’t picked up.
  • Partner with businesses to encourage work-site based CSA pick-ups, which offer a practical location that doesn’t require additional travel for workers.
  • Provide links to and promote DDA’s Buy Local Delaware: CSA Programs and Delaware Grown on local government websites.

Urban Food Production Initiatives

Growing produce in urban areas removes the need to transport food to vendors over long distances. Alongside bringing food closer to residents, urban food production fosters a sense of place and community pride.

Promote Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture, also known as urban farming, consists of plots of land in cities or towns that are specifically used for growing fruits and vegetables with the intent to sell the produce. Often, organizations and community groups that operate urban farms sell the produce through their own farm stand, a local farm stand, or a farmers’ market. Many community organizations have used urban farms to employ community youth who learn skills ranging from farming methods to retail management to entrepreneurship. To promote urban agriculture, local governments can:

  • Define urban agriculture in the municipal code and modify the zoning code to permit the use of land for urban agriculture in suitable areas spread throughout the city. For strategies and sample language, read model ordinances.
  • Consider creating an urban agriculture overlay district allowing for urban agriculture to be a permitted use in appropriate areas that may encompass several different zones.
  • Modify zoning codes to permit the sale of produce (a specific type of commercial use) on the urban farm.
  • Lease suitable public land at an affordable price to parties interested in starting an urban agriculture program.
  • Provide information on start-up grants.

Support Community Gardens

Often on a smaller scale than urban agriculture, community gardens are communally shared plots of land used to grow vegetables that are traditionally either freely available to community members or donated to a local charitable organization like a food bank. To support community gardens, local governments can:

  • Increase the number of zones that permit community gardens as a land use. It is important to permit community gardens in residential zones because this makes food more accessible for those who do not have cars.
  • Establish a program through which people can apply to create a community garden on suitable public land.
  • Partner with local nonprofits and food banks to establish a community garden that donates produce to the food bank.
  • Establish ordinances that allow for rooftop gardening.

Improving Food Affordability

Improving food access hinges on making food more affordable. Research has long shown that when food is sold less expensively, people tend to purchase that food more. In 2004, a study found that people bought significantly more healthy foods when the price of those foods was decreased even though overall sales at the store did not change during that time. Local governments can make healthy food more affordable by assisting local retailers in using best practices for procurement and distribution as well as increasing the number of locations that accept food benefits like the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). These USDA programs offer nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provide economic benefits to communities.

Local Retail Assistance Initiatives

Becoming a healthier local retailer can be costly, especially for those that may not have previously sold healthy food. Retailers may have to purchase new equipment, train new employees, and import produce from distant locations. Furthermore, if local retailers make mistakes in proper storage of produce, they risk losing significant amounts of money. Local governments can forge partnerships to help local retailers ensure they are selling produce safely and efficiently.

Facilitate Procurement

From who and how retailers obtain fruits and vegetables, to the price of the vegetables—procurement relationships are an important factor in the sale of fruits and vegetables. To support local retailers in produce procurement, local governments can:

  • Establish or partner with a food hub, which would form a center point for collecting produce from local farms and redistributing the produce to local vendors.
  • Provide technical assistance in establishing partnerships between local retailers and supermarkets. Local stores receive produce from supermarkets, and supermarkets benefit from the additional advertising they receive when the local stores sell their produce.
  • Partner with local farms and local retailers to help them form business relationships.

Facilitate Healthy Purchases

Training facilitates affordable sale of fruits and vegetables by teaching retailers storage techniques and the importance of seasonality of vegetables. In addition, local governments can ensure that retailers are effectively marketing produce to reinforce a demand for healthy food in the community. To make training more accessible to local food retailers, local governments can:

  • Direct local retailers to financial assistance, grant, and loan opportunities for a variety of projects and activities at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services and DDA.
  • Provide local government website links to resources on creating healthy small food retailer certification programs that provide strategies with a mix of policies and programs to improve the food environment.
  • Provide information on resources offered by cooperative extension programs at the University of Delaware and Delaware State University, which offer expertise and resources on family and health, food, agriculture and natural resources, programs for young people, and gardening.
  • Support promotion, marketing, displays, and advertisements to promote healthy foods within the retail environment.
  • Support public health, education, and social media campaigns to advance the importance of healthy eating.

USDA Nutrition Assistance Initiatives

Administered by the USDA, under the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) provide supplemental food-purchasing assistance for low-income people. FNS works with state agencies, nutrition educators, and neighborhood and faith-based organizations to ensure that those eligible for nutrition assistance can make informed decisions about applying for the program and can access benefits.

SNAP-Ed is an evidence-based program that helps people lead healthier lives through good nutrition, informed consumerism, and physical activity. Local governments and community organizations can partner with SNAP-Ed to support social marketing campaigns, hold nutrition education classes, and improve their policies, systems, and the environment of the community.

Expand Benefit Acceptance

If a local food retailer does not accept SNAP, WIC, or SFMNP benefits, program recipients are less likely to shop there. The applications to become an approved vendor for these federal programs require a thorough understanding of the program regulations and a significant time commitment. To encourage more healthy food retailers to accept USDA nutrition assistance program benefits, local governments can:

  • Direct food retailers to USDA’s online resources to determine eligibility criteria to participate in the SNAP, WIC, or SFMNP program.
  • Refer farmers’ market and farm stand vendors, interested in becoming authorized to accept SNAP benefits, to specific application information on USDA’s website.
  • Direct food retailers, farmers’ markets, and farm stands to Delaware’s WIC Vendor Unit to learn how to become an authorized WIC vendor in Delaware.
  • Give farmers’ markets and farm stand vendors information about participating in the WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP).

Use Added Benefits to Promote Healthy Foods

Some jurisdictions offer incentives to residents that use SNAP, WIC, and SFMNP benefits to buy fruits and vegetables, which may typically be more expensive. To create or incentivize healthy-food related programs, local governments can:

  • Partner with local nonprofits to match dollar amounts spent on local produce for SNAP, WIC, and SFMNP recipients. If this program is too costly, consider capping the match or using a smaller ratio than dollar-to-dollar. See the analysis performed by San Francisco for a comparison of these programs.
  • Seek funding support, or partner with local businesses and nonprofits to subsidize CSA purchases for those with SNAP and WIC benefits because the upfront payments used in CSAs limit their ability to accept these benefits.

Resources for Healthy Food Access Initiatives

Resources are available to assist local governments increase access to healthy food through community planning processes, policies, partnerships, and place-based programs. For more information, visit the following websites: