Profile: Caroline Harries, Associate Director, The Food Trust

Caroline Harries is the Associate Director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust, a nonprofit that works with neighborhoods, schools, grocers, farmers, and policymakers throughout the country to develop a comprehensive approach to food access.

The Food Trust and Ms. Harries are members of the newly launched Kansas Healthy Food Initiative (KHFI), which aims to improve food distribution and grocery sale technology in Kansas – where 30 percent of counties are considered food deserts by the USDA. As part of the KHFI team, IFF will manage more than $5 million in combined loans and grants for food access projects such as new, expanded, or improved rural and urban grocery stores. The initiative is supported by Kansas State University and funded by a $4.2 million grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.

Ms. Harries has been with The Food Trust for over a decade. Previously, she spent five years working for local community organizations in New England and earned a master’s degree in regional planning from Cornell University.

 

  1. Let’s start with some Food Access 101 – does “healthy food access” basically just mean having access to a full-service grocery store? How can “food deserts” exist – wouldn’t you expect market forces to call for grocery stores where there is lots of demand and zero supply?

At The Food Trust, we believe in a comprehensive approach to healthy food access – one that includes supporting retail venues like supermarkets, grocery stores, and farmers markets in underserved communities, as well as teaching nutrition education, providing healthy food incentives to SNAP recipients, and working with corner store owners to increase healthy offerings. We believe communities thrive with multiple points of access to healthy foods so that the healthy choice is the easy choice.

Grocery store access is a really critical piece of that puzzle. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, supermarkets and grocery stores capture the largest share of food to be prepared or eaten at home. But the grocery industry is really complex, requiring deep experience and know-how, and the profit margins are really thin, so operators are really careful about where they locate their stores – they choose locations where they can maximize their profit. Costs associated with developing in underserved areas can be extraordinary – assembling the right amount of land is hard in urban areas, and infrastructure costs can be onerous in rural areas. There’s also regulatory barriers, such as costs associated with parking and signage, and even costs associated with workforce development and training.

We’ve found that healthy food financing initiatives – when you offer one-time grants and loans to incentivize an operator consider a location they might not otherwise consider – often result in very successful grocery stores in these neighborhoods.

 

  1. The Food Trust is known for forming public-private partnerships that leverage investments from several sources – governments, CDFIs, philanthropic institutions, and private sources. Why does it take so many entities to tackle healthy food access challenges?

We think partnerships are really critical to the success of our work to improve access to healthy food, in large part because of the variety of perspectives that inform these programs and help make them stronger and more sustainable. The healthy food financing model has been informed by leaders in public health, economic development, and the civic sector, as well as the grocers themselves – after all, this has to make sense for the businesses as well as the communities they serve. And seed investment from a government and/or philanthropic entity, like we’re seeing in Kansas, can often catalyze additional investment, including from additional foundations, public sources, and the private sector. Through partnerships, these programs are better informed, richer, and have a stronger impact.

 

  1. As a national organization, The Food Trust is in a position to see how food access issues differ – or not – from state to state. On balance, do you think there are more commonalities or differences when setting up successful programs in New York, Ohio, Kansas, etc.?

I think there’s a basic recipe for success – one that includes a public-private partnership that offers flexible funding to address a range of healthy food access needs, from full-service grocery stores to farmers markets to even things like food hubs that support the distribution of produce to communities that need it. And these programs are flexible in terms of the communities that they can serve, from densely urban to sparsely populated rural.

At the same time, I think these programs need to be nuanced to reflect particular challenges specific to individual communities and regions. For example, through our work with partners in Kansas, we’ve learned that distribution of food to stores is a big challenge in the state, especially for rural areas. So supporting distribution-related projects, in addition to traditional grocery and other healthy-food retail, is going to make a real difference there.

 

  1. Looking ahead, are you optimistic or pessimistic? What’s on the horizon?

Optimistic. I’ve seen tremendous growth in the understanding of the importance of healthy food access across this country in my decade at The Food Trust. Through the work of many groups across the country, I think we’re experiencing a sea change in the way people think and feel about food and its value in our lives. And we’re witnessing civic leaders across the country prioritize the issue in a way they weren’t doing over a decade ago.

We’re also seeing an evolution in the innovations to address the need for healthy food access. A great example is the newly launching Kansas Healthy Food Initiative. This partnership is innovative and will bring significant capacity with so many strong partners in place – including IFF, which is now a national leader in the healthy food financing world, and Kansas State University’s new Center for Healthy Food Access, which brings a whole host of resources to enhance support for healthy food access projects. These partnerships can maximize the impact of healthy food access projects.

The horizon includes an evolution of the healthy food financing model to address not only retail grocery spaces but also additional programs that enhance their impact – things like community engagement, nutrition education, in-store marketing, health care partnerships, healthy food prescriptions, and nutrition incentive programs such as the Federal Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive. Together these more holistic programs can help maximize the impact of healthy food retail venues in underserved communities.

 

  1. Surely you’ve attended many ribbon-cuttings and public events showcasing the new and improved grocery stores and farmers markets launched as a result of The Food Trust’s efforts. Is there any one project that sticks out in your mind – something you’re particularly proud of?

Yes. Vinton County, Ohio, lost its only grocery store about four years ago. The county is located in southern rural Appalachian Ohio, and residents had to drive at least 20 miles round trip to the closest store offering fresh foods. Thanks to the support from the healthy food financing program we worked on there with local partners – the Healthy Food for Ohio Program – there is a new grocery store scheduled to open there later this fall, which is really exciting for the community.

I was able to attend the groundbreaking for the store there on a very cold, rainy day in March. The turnout at that event, despite the weather, really demonstrated the tremendous need for the grocery store and for fresh food in the county. I think the message was especially reinforced by a speaker at the event – Rhoda Price, who is the Director of Senior Services for the county. She stood up at the podium for the groundbreaking event with a banana in her hand, and she stated that the grocery store coming to their town through the Healthy Food for Ohio Program will more easily allow seniors in the town to eat bananas instead of having to take a potassium pill. That’s a really great example of how important grocery stores are to communities and healthy food financing programs are to bringing fresh foods to underserved areas.

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