By Nick BeJeaux
In East Baton Rouge Parish, the people in greatest need of nutritious, healthy food pay the highest prices for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Baton Rouge hosted a discussion of the Food Access Policy Commission’s findings on the “Grocery Gap” phenomenon at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church on Monday, with a presentation including statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report indicated that 17 percent of the population in East Baton Rouge parish – about 75,000 people – have “unacceptably low access” to grocery stores and other healthy food stores. The national average is eight percent.
The USDA estimates that 39 percent of EBR’s people living in low-access (more than a mile away from a grocery store) areas live below the poverty line – nearly 17,000 are children.
Local corner stores in these low-access areas do carry needed foods, like milk, bread and cereals. However, Together Baton Rouge has found that corner store prices can be anywhere from seven to 25 percent more than grocery stores’. Even if a mother of three living in a low-access area had the means to travel to a store, the cost of gas would eventually offset the savings.
“The people having the most difficulty affording good food are actually paying more than everyone else,” said Brodrick Bagert, TBR’s Lead Organizer.
The consequences of the grocery gaps – also less charmingly called “food deserts” – are actually very well known and documented, and have been for some time. It’s no secret that Louisiana has the highest rate of adult obesity in the country. According to numbers from the Robert Wood-Johnson Foundation, 34.7 percent of adults in Louisiana are obese. Research from the USDA suggests that obesity rates in neighborhoods over a mile away from grocery stores are 52 to 90 percent higher than high-access areas.
There’s also an economic consequence to low-access.
“Grocery stores are anchors for neighborhood vitality,” said Bagert. “Theres a strong connection between a lack of grocery stores and low property values, stagnant housing and even a drop in retail.”
Solutions presented by EBR included the creation of a financing initiative to attract grocery stores to certain areas, utilize the Capital Area Transit System to help people reach stores otherwise out of reach and sustain local programs such as food banks and farmer’s markets. Attendees of the discussion were asked to split into groups and discuss the problem of food deserts in their own communities, the proposed solutions and even come up with solutions of their own. Among them was District 67 State Representative Patricia Smith.
Smith lives near Brightside, but has roots in St. Francis Xavier. Having grown up in the area, Smith said that the problem of low-access to healthy food is nothing new.
“We’ve not had access to a grocery store here since I was a child,” she said. “We used to have a National Food Store – where we all used to shop – and an A&P. So we did have stores, but they eventually closed because they couldn’t sustain themselves.”
When chain stores like Walmart or Winn Dixie came to Baton Rouge, they settled closer to where Smith lives today, but her old neighborhood is still a food desert, and there isn’t much push to change that – at least, not yet.
“This area is still completely voided of any access to fresh fruits or great vegetables,” said Smith. “When you talk to store owners they’re just not interested in moving out here obviously because it would be a large cost to them. Unfortunately stores in this area are more interested in selling alcohol and cigarettes than healthy food. Instead of building a new store, why not convert one of these local stores into a healthy food store?”
For more information on healthy food access in Baton Rouge, visit www.healthybr.com.