Virginia’s Family Nutrition Program is designing a comprehensive program around healthy food retail

By Liza Dobson, Healthy Food Retail Coordinator, Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program, Lynchburg

The Family Nutrition Program’s (FNP) ( mission is to teach limited-resource families and youth to make healthier food choices and become better managers of available food resources for optimal health and growth. Our programs focus on basic nutrition, physical activity, safe food handling, and thrifty food shopping.  FNP Program Assistants conduct educational programming in schools, foodbanks, farmers markets, community gardens, and numerous other venues, contributing to the reduction of healthcare costs for 148,000 SNAP-eligible Virginians.

While the FNP works to help shape healthy behavior, we also understand why practicing these behaviors is challenging. Many areas across the United States are considered “food deserts” (a term no longer used by the USDA), where some low-income families also have low food-access.  While income and distance from a grocery store are two main factors, we also know that food quality, price, and preparation knowledge are just as important.  All of these factors influence a household’s or community’s “food environment.”

FNP SNAP-Ed Extension Agents work hard to implement policy, systems, and environmental changes to facilitate healthier communities. A new state staff position has been hired in Lynchburg to build off this on-going effort and create a comprehensive program around healthy food retail.  While many FNP field staff are already partnering with retailers in their communities, this new comprehensive program will offer a “menu” of interventions, each with an evaluation strategy, so local programs can be tailored for each individual community.  This will allow flexible programming with uniform evaluation in order to report the state-wide impact of FNP healthy food retail work.

In understanding that food retail often has slim profit margins, this program will not include interventions to increase healthy food supply. Instead, it will focus on partnering with the local community and retail stores to implement interventions that encourage low-income consumers to make healthier choices while they shop.  These strategies will be designed to emphasize pervious FNP education individuals may have received to reinforce healthy choices in the retail environment.  For example, FNP staff already teach consumers how to cook and shop healthy on a budget as well as where to find healthy food in their communities.

While many low-income Virginians live in “food deserts” without a nearby grocery store or supermarket, there are still local retail stores with healthy food options. These healthy options may be fewer or “hidden” amongst other food options, but they often do exist.  By continuing to highlight the healthy foods that are already available in a community, rather than bring in new retailers or ask existing retailers to take on the financial risk of expanding their food offerings, the program will simply be designed to build demand for healthy food.  This in turn may encourage retailers to increase their supply, thus creating a healthier food environment.  This signature healthy food retail program will be rolled out in 2018.

The Family Nutrition Program is offered through Virginia Cooperative Extension, an educational outreach partnership between Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. Funding is provided from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) to offer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) in Virginia as well as from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).