By Dwight Evans

and Don Hinkle-Brown

A decade ago, almost 1.8 million Pennsylvanians lived in communities lacking convenient access to healthy food, despite the state's status as a world leader in food production and processing.

This discrepancy helped launch the Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), a 2004 effort by the commonwealth, the Reinvestment Fund (TRF), the Food Trust, and the Urban Affairs Coalition to improve health, stimulate local investment, and provide family-supporting jobs.

The effort blossomed. By the end of 2010, the initiative had financed 88 retail projects that supported more than 5,000 jobs, all while improving access to healthier foods for more than 400,000 Pennsylvanians.

The Keystone State's model has inspired similar initiatives in almost a dozen other cities and states and also spurred the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which has granted more than $140 million to support food access nationwide.

Some of the tools developed in Pennsylvania have made us an indisputable leader in this area. One example is TRF's Limited Supermarket Access study, which analyzes access to healthy foods in communities across the nation. According to this study, 301,397 Philadelphia residents were living without convenient access to healthy foods in 2005. By 2013, the number was more than halved because of FFFI and other concerted efforts.

Today, 187,000 Philadelphia residents' nearest option for obtaining fresh foods is at a grocer financed by TRF. These stores have reduced populations with limited access by 67,000 people, with substantial decreases seen in West and North Philadelphia.

Nationwide, the number of people living without easy access to healthy foods has been reduced by 45 percent over nine years, a stunning accomplishment.

An important part of this story is how such efforts are transforming lives and rejuvenating neighborhoods and regions across America.

The benefits keep compounding. TRF's $74 million in financing of food retail in Philadelphia between 2005 and 2013 has led to a staggering improvement in the number of stores now carrying healthy foods. In addition, the number of full-service grocery stores in Philadelphia has increased by 48 percent over the last nine years, outpacing the state and the nation (38 and 31 percent, respectively).

Besides improving access, fresh-food initiatives help increase property values and the tax base. They also create and retain jobs and foster the flow of public and private investment into neighborhoods.

The larger lesson learned is that increasing access is a fundamental step to building healthy and sustainable communities.

The people and organizations behind fresh-food initiatives share a core belief: All Americans should have healthy food options in their neighborhoods, regardless of income, race, or education. And this nationwide movement has shown that neighborhood grocery stores, supermarkets, and farmers' markets are a proven investment in people and the communities in which they live. And thanks to the work that began in Philadelphia, we have the tools to measure just how far the needle has moved.

Much work remains to be done. However, the progress realized since 2004 - again, thanks in large part to successes sparked in Philadelphia - provides great hope and impetus for even further advances.

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) represents the 203d District. devans@pahouse.net

Don Hinkle-Brown is president and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund. donhb@trfund.com