Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has announced legislation he believes would address the lack of healthy food options faced by a majority of the city’s residents.
A proposed healthy food ordinance will be officially released in coming weeks, Woodfin told the City Council on Tuesday, and will include measures to “limit the development of new dollar stores in our city… as well as open more opportunities for fresh food producers (and) lowering the overall costs for grocers.”
Woodfin described addressing food deserts — areas in the city where healthy food options are unaffordable or unavailable — as “a major priority” for his administration.
“Out of 212,000 residents, 146,000 people, (around) 70 percent of our population … live in districts designated as food deserts by the USDA,” Woodfin said. “Food deserts affect far too many residents in our city.”
Dollar stores such as Family Dollar and Dollar General are partially to blame for this shortage of healthy food, Woodfin said, arguing that they “divert customers and revenue away from grocery stores and healthy food, and many grocery stores are forced to close.”
Woodfin’s proposal would “limit the new development of dollar stores,” by ensuring that they “must be one mile from existing stores.”
Woodfin compared dollar stores’ effects on lower-income residents to “all the check-cashing places that proliferated our city at a certain point.”
“We can’t have certain organizations that prey on poor people in our city,” he said. “We have to protect our people … We’re going to have to stop some of this stuff from happening, where some folks are choosing (dollar stores) because of the overwhelming access to it, which doesn’t necessarily help them.”
Josh Carpenter, the city’s director of innovation and economic opportunity, argued that this would make Birmingham a more attractive place for affordable grocery stores.
“This is an effort to be intentional… to make sure we can set ourselves up to be as competitive as possible to recruit grocery stores in our community,” Carpenter said, pointing to Jefferson County’s loss of five grocery stores between 2005 and 2015.
Woodfin added that several grocery stores already have declined his administration’s invitations to open locations in Birmingham. “The no’s have already started, but we won’t stop this conversation until we land healthy grocery options in our city,” he said.
Woodfin said his plan would also change regulations to allow community gardens to sell produce on-site and “permit farmers and public markets to operate for longer throughout the year.”
This proposal wouldn’t be the first healthy food ordinance passed by the city. In 2017, the council passed a healthy food incentive program, which allowed qualified recipients to receive up to $150 in healthy food vouchers annually. The initiative ultimately fizzled in the wake of that year’s municipal elections; in December 2017, the newly elected Woodfin cut the project’s funding from his proposed budget.
On Tuesday, District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt lauded Woodfin’s approach to the issue and suggested it could come to define his legacy as mayor. “I think this is great,” he said. “This is really transformative, quite frankly, Mr. Mayor.”