Sen. Warner discusses food desert legislation, Trump during visit to Salem

Photo by Shawn Nowlin
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., visited Feeding America Southwest Virginia on Wednesday, February 20, for a roundtable discussion that featured Pamela Irvine, CEO and president of FASWVA.

Being a Democratic politician for over two decades has taught Senator Warner several things.

Among them, he says, is that nobody in government accomplishes anything by themselves. Said the senator in a 2018 CNN interview, “always having an open mind and being willing to compromise has been vital to what I’ve been able to accomplish in Washington D.C.”

On Wednesday, February 20, the senator led a roundtable discussion, which included nonprofit leaders, elected officials and healthcare professionals, about nutritional issues and food deserts inside Salem’s Feeding America Southwest Virginia building.

“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,” said the senator. “The recent government shutdown showed how many people are simply one paycheck away from falling into food vulnerability. We should never have been in a circumstance where we’re shutting down the government over a political dispute.”

During the 35-day government shutdown, Feeding America Southwest Virginia distributed food to Transportation Security Administration at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport as well as federal prison employees in Lee County.

The Healthy Food for All Americans (HFAAA) Act, a federal bill that amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow tax credits and grants for activities that provide access to healthy food in food deserts, was introduced by Senator Warner in 2017. The bipartisan- supported bill will be reintroduced in March.

More than one million Virginians live in food deserts which are defined as “an urban area in which it is difficult to purchase good-quality fresh or affordable food.” Senator Warner is the first to admit those numbers are unacceptable.

Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. Jewel Bronaugh wholeheartedly agrees.  Bronaugh, a former dean of Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, was instrumental in the making of the 2015 documentary Living in a Food Desert.

“I thought that it would die and go away after we showed it, but it really put a face on the issue. It went into communities and talked about the food access issue,” Dr. Bronaugh said. “I walked around this building today, and everyone is in such good nature. I can’t even begin to complement Feeding America Southwest Virginia on the wonderful job that is done every single day.”

During the gathering, Liz Ackley, a Roanoke College faculty member, emphasized why it’s important to think of ways to make grocery stores in food deserts more sustainable. She also discussed the importance of making sure that the employees hired are from 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,” she said.

Kroger recently purchased a van and partnered with local non-profits to deliver food directly to underserved communities. Allison McGee, the Corporate Affairs Manager, said, “customers today are looking for convenience, like online shopping or grocery delivery. As a result, grocers are investing less in brick and mortar stores.”

Senator Warner says he understands that Virginians want transparency and effectiveness from the elected officials they send to Washington D.C. As he put it, “If we are going to make sure that we bring down the cost of healthcare, if we are going to deal with chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, we’ve got to make sure that Virginians and Americans have access to good, quality, healthy food.”

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