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More than 100 food deserts exist around Missouri, and 12 percent of Missourians struggle with food insecurity. A proposed bill would offer a tax credit to encourage full- service grocery stores to settle in food deserts to provide fruits, vegetables and other healthy food.

Senate Bill 188, sponsored by state Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, is designed to provide healthier options for Missourians who may not be able to travel to grocery stores and instead buy unhealthy foods at gas stations and convenience stores.

A food desert is defined in the bill as an area where at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, are located farther than a half-mile from a full-service grocery store in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas. The area also must have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent or a median family income of less than 80 percent of the statewide average.

Tracts of land are identified as food deserts all across the state, including in rural and urban areas, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Empower Missouri Executive Director Mallory Rusch testified in support of SB 188. Rusch said the bill would help improve bad diets that lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease caused by eating unhealthy foods from gas stations and convenience stores. She added that the tax credit incentives would lower state-funded medical program costs while also reducing hunger.

Empower Missouri's website says the organization works to secure basic human needs and equal justice for every person in the state through coalition-building and advocacy, and it envisions a Missouri in which all people have food, shelter and justice.

After the Missouri Senate economic development committee hearing Tuesday, Rusch said SB 188 is incredibly important to people who live in food deserts. She said the bill would benefit rural health care systems by improving the health of those in the area.

"There is literally no quadrant of the state where (food deserts) don't exist," she said. "I would say that they equally plague both rural and urban areas."

Several other bills were heard at the hearing, including a bill that would provide tax credits for lower-income families to raise their children. SB 500, sponsored by state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, is the Affordable Child Care for Families Tax Credit Act.

In Missouri, the average annual cost of infant care is $10,041 per child, Schupp said. A typical family in Missouri would have to spend about 29 percent of its income on child care, which is out of reach for some families, she said.

In its first year, the bill would create a tax credit for 10 percent of a taxpayer's federal child and dependent care tax credit. The percentage would annually increase in increments of 10 percent until it is capped at 30 percent.

"It's important for us to spur on economic development by allowing all families, all parents, to be able to get back to work and to know that their children are taken care of and that they can afford to have their children taken care of by being able to use some of these tax credit dollars to cover their costs," Schupp said.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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