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Healthy food study bill headed to Barbour’s desk

JACKSON (AP) — A bill headed to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk would create an advisory committee to study areas of the state with limited access to healthy food and make recommendations on how to solve the problem.

Rep. Toby Barker, a Republican from Hattiesburg who filed the bill, said he got the idea after attending a conference last fall. Experts there had said lack of physical exercise and a lack of access to healthy foods were the main contributors to obesity, said Barker.

“It actually opened my eyes a lot,” Barker said. “I believe obesity will be our biggest issue for the next 20 or 30 years because of the complications that come from it.”

Under the bill, a 15-member committee will research the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables and make recommendations for creating a statewide financing program to bring fresh food retailers into underserved areas.

Such an area is referred to as a “food desert.” A food desert can exist in urban and rural areas. In Mississippi, a food desert is classified as having no supermarkets within a 10-mile radius of a community, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Several food deserts have been identified across the state, including in Hinds County and parts of the Delta.

“They’ve been mapped out where people have to drive long distances for some type of store that can provide them with fresh produce,” said Therese Hanna, executive director of the Center for Mississippi Health Policy.

Hanna said Mississippi has the lowest consumption of fruits and vegetables in the nation among adults. That’s a troubling fact, “particularly given we’re such an agricultural state,” said Hanna.

Sandra Shelson, executive director of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, applauded the bill.

Shelson’s organization has been trying to combat teen tobacco use for years and now it’s involved in an initiative for healthy eating habits. She said the group has hired a registered diet expert who speaks at schools and health fairs.

“The whole idea you teach kids to eat the right things, but yet they don’t have access to them, there’s a big disconnect there,” Shelson said.

“It may be we need to make sure we have more farmers’ markets or make sure the Dollar Stores and convenience stores have healthy foods.”

Members of the proposed advisory committee would include the state health officer, representatives of the Division of Medicaid and the Department of Human Services, lawmakers and others. The group’s report is due by Dec. 1.

The bill is due from Barbour by April 26.

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The bill is House Bill 1170.

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