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Food Access Five Years After the Storm

How New Nutrition Programs Can Help New Orleans and Americans Across the Country

Amara M. Foster discusses how new Obama administration nutrition programs can help New Orleans and Americans across the country.

The Circle Food Store in New Orleans sits idle in this photo made February 23, 2006. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans residents still struggle to gain access to basic amounts of food, despite their rich food history and resources. (AP/Bill Haber)
The Circle Food Store in New Orleans sits idle in this photo made February 23, 2006. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans residents still struggle to gain access to basic amounts of food, despite their rich food history and resources. (AP/Bill Haber)

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The best strawberry I’ve ever eaten was grown on the Gulf Coast. It was unassuming—a small, burgundy, heart-shaped thing—yet one bite was all it took. The berry was soft, not too juicy, and entirely unlike any out-of-season fruit I’d ever tasted. Thoughts of New Orleans bring to mind Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, but few know of Louisiana’s agricultural bounty. The state is consistently one of the top 10 strawberry producers in the United States. It ranks number one in production of crawfish, shrimp, and oysters; is the second largest producer of sugarcane; and is the third largest producer of rice.

I recently worked as a National Hunger Fellow for the Congressional Hunger Center to increase access to healthy foods in low-income communities in New Orleans. I ate many traditional foods of the Louisiana gulf region during my time in the city and saw how food is literally built into the city’s identity. This is reflected in its network of farmers’ markets, interest in farm-to-school initiatives like The Edible Schoolyard, and the New Orleans Food Policy Council. Yet it was evident that many low-income residents faced challenges related to food and nutrition and would benefit from some of the Obama administration’s new proposals, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and the president’s fiscal year 2011 budget, which includes increases in child nutrition spending among other hunger measures.

Many New Orleans residents still struggle to gain access to basic amounts of food, despite their rich food history and resources. Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the city’s food retail market infrastructure, reducing the number of supermarkets in the city and drastically cutting residents’ access to fresh food. And the city placed in the top 10 metropolitan areas experiencing the greatest amount of food hardship in 2009.

There were 30 supermarkets in the city before Hurricane Katrina. Two years after the storm, only 15 had returned. An additional five were rebuilt in 2009, bringing the total count of supermarkets in the city to 20. Yet the average grocery store in New Orleans serves nearly 16,000 people, twice the national average. The Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans found recently that more than half (60 percent) of households with children in their service area reported having to choose between paying for utilities and paying for food.

One way to address the challenge of food insecurity is through food retail stores. I worked with two New Orleans organizations to increase access to healthy food at a local corner store. Low-income communities and communities of color in New Orleans and across the country are often most affected by lack of access to fresh, healthy food. Low-income zip codes across the country have 25 percent fewer supermarkets and 1.3 times as many small “corner stores” compared to middle-income zip codes. These stores typically lack fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food options; profit from sales of alcohol and tobacco, sugar-sweetened drinks, and high-calorie snacks; and in New Orleans, far outnumber the grocery stores in the city. Predominantly black zip codes have about half the number of supermarkets compared to predominantly white zip codes. And this lack of affordable food directly contributes to higher rates of chronic disease in these communities.

The Let’s Move initiative intends to tackle these issues by promoting healthy eating, physical fitness, and access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. And the president’s FY 2011 budget includes funding for increases in child nutrition spending and a Fresh Food Financing initiative, which will invest $400 million per year to help small “corner stores” and bodegas carry healthier options and to bring farmers’ markets and supermarkets to underserved areas.

Such policies would advance the nation’s job creation goals. Food retail development has been shown to spur local community development and generate jobs. Philadelphia’s Food Trust found that one urban supermarket generates approximately 150 full-time and part- time jobs. When implemented statewide, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative in Pennsylvania helped create and retain nearly 3,734 jobs in 68 stores.

Increasing supermarket access in low-income communities in New Orleans and communities throughout the country also makes for sound health policy. Healthy eating habits are the first line of defense against illness, and regular consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is associated with lower risk for obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases. Food access policy has the potential to save billions in health care costs; recent conservative estimates suggest that hunger and food insecurity cost our society $66.8 billion (in 2005 dollars) annually for expenses related to illness and mental health services, representing a significant portion of the little more than $90 billion in total societal costs associated with hunger in America.

First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative will engage parents, schools, doctors, and the food industry in the fight against childhood obesity. The initiative notes that many children consume at least half their daily calories at school and complements the USDA’s Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge Program and the president’s recommendation for an increase of $1 billion each year over the next 10 years to improve the quality of school meals and increase the number of children participating. Unfortunately, the most recent Senate version of the child nutrition bill falls far short of this recommendation, suggesting only a $4.5 billion increase in child nutrition programs over the next 10 years.

Let’s Move also aims to increase the amount of healthy food in stores frequented by children and their families. Purchases made in small “corner stores” contribute significantly to high-caloric intake among urban school children; the average urban child in grades four through six purchases more than 1,400 calories of low-nutrient, energy-dense food per visit to a corner store.

It is clear that access to healthy food is a growing priority for both policymakers and families. Momentum around this issue has increased over the past six months. As policymakers look to increase the breadth of nutrition assistance programs, they should ensure that all eligible families are able to participate in these programs and that enrollment is an easy and accessible process. Creating a unified system of federal assistance programs would guarantee that a family receiving the benefits of one program does not miss out on those of another.

It is also important that these programs utilize the knowledge and resources of the communities their policies affect. Residents, organizations, and business owners hold a vast amount of expertise about their own neighborhoods. Initiatives like San Francisco’s Good Neighbor project direct city- and state-level dollars directly to communities, allowing for residents to build meaningful and sustainable partnerships while increasing the consumption of fresh produce and reducing health disparities. Federal funding for such projects has the potential to change health outcomes in New Orleans and across the country. Innovative programs like the Good Neighbor Project model show how seemingly disparate communities and stakeholders can come together to address a problem that may affect us differently, but ultimately, affects us all.

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