A bill that would increase access to fresh vegetables and fruits for low-income and struggling communities passed unanimously in a state Senate agriculture committee meeting today.

The bill garnered the support of the American Heart Association and the Junior League; representatives from both groups spoke in support of the bill, which would direct the “Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to establish a financing program to help fund projects that increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved areas,” according to the bill summary.

The bill’s sponsor, state. Sen Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, said he introduced the bill to decrease health costs, and improve local economies and residents’ health.

Katherine Martin of the Junior League of Greater Orlando told senators that ”there is a great need in Florida to bring healthy food into food deserts.”

Food deserts, she explained, are areas where healthy food is miles away and residents have little-to-no access to foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. They typically crop up in low-income communities. Martin said she had worked in communities where children “did not know what a red pepper looks like [and] had never tasted yogurt.” She said having healthy food access just in schools is not enough.

State Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and Sen. David Simmons R-Altamonte Springs — both of whom voted in favor of the bill — expressed concern that this program would end up unfunded.

“I am all in favor of good nutrition, and I am opposed to obesity, personally,” Hays explained. “The reality is that the state of Florida is screaming for cash.”

“There is no money to put feet on this program,” he said.

Hays also made the argument that increasing access would not necessarily mean people would be eating more healthy foods.

Martin explained that, in her experience, introducing children to healthy foods and increasing access did indeed result “in a large increase” in the amount of healthy foods the children eat.

The bill follows Siplin’s plans to improve the quality of life for farmworkers and residents of the Apopka area, a group that had been facing years of environmental injustice and health problems. Siplin told The Florida Independent in September that he was working with community health workers in the surrounding community to help improve the quality of life there. The area, he said, has also suffered from ailments caused by their proximity to a landfill and limited access to fresh produce.

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