"It'd be nice to have a store that has more than ramen and canned chili." Ninth Ward resident Arthur Murray says that he hasn't lived in the community long, but long enough to know that "It's a bitch to find groceries here." And many long-term New Orleans residents couldn't be more in agreement.
"Food deserts": it's a term with which residents of New Orleans are all too familiar; one used to describe neighborhoods with little, if any, access to healthy food. The Mayor's Office shared statistics from a Tulane University study that found that roughly two-thirds of the city's low-income residents say they must drive more than three miles to reach a grocery store. Yet only half of those surveyed owned a car.
As part of an effort to bring life to these deserts, Mayor Landrieu announced on Tuesday, March 15, that the city is partnering with Hope Enterprise Corporation, a community development organization that also launched Hope Community Credit Union, and The Food Trust, a Pennsylvania-based organization that has worked on expanding access to fresh foods in Pennsylvania and New York. The City will be putting up $7 million in Disaster-Community Development Block Grant funds [CDBGs] while Hope will match this amount dollar for dollar.
The program is called the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative (FFRI), and it will be disbursed in the form of low-interest and forgivable loans to help grocers and supermarkets open up in under-served communities. The loans will also be available to grocers currently in those areas to help them expand. The mayor's communication's Director, Devona Dolliole, specified that "while much of the city would be categorized as underserved, the Mayor is looking to target areas from New Orleans East to Central City to the Lower 9th Ward."
The Broad Street area is one that lost a grocery store after Katrina. Jeff Schwartz, executive director of Broad Community Connections, said that the Mayor's initiative is "really exciting." His organization sponsored an event called the Broad Street Brewhaha that featured local coffee roasters and brewers on the roof of the old Schwegmann's last fall. One stand at the event was selling herbs, and Schwartz says the group sold over $500 worth of merchandise."So we know the demand is there," he commented on the space for fresh foods.
"The city needs about twice as many grocery stores as it currently has just to be at the national average," Schwartz said. "We had about 30 before Katrina, and now we have 17 or 18. And that all depends on how you count a grocery store. A lot of the corner stores don't have the healthy foods that I would consider qualifying it as a grocery store."
Schwartz added, however, that in order to fully satisfy the need for healthy food, there will have to be further steps. "I think it's great that they started with retail, but there is a bigger picture of where food access is happening in the city." He pointed out that some children receive the bulk of their daily food intake at school, making those meals another point of focus.
Dolliole told The Louisiana Weekly that the City expects "to open 10-20 retail stores with the [Fresh Food Retailer Initiative]. Additionally, it's important to note the economic impact. A typical supermarket employs between 100 and 200 local residents."
The Circle Food Store is one of the city's icons, yet it has been closed since the flood. Dwayne Boudreaux was enthusiastic about the Mayor's initiative. "With this fresh food thing, finally it seems like we are heading in the direction where we can open up." Boudreaux said that "[We were] sitting on the corner all those years, hiring people, providing for the community...[this initiative is] going to give other grocery stores a better feeling about the city, that they really want us to come back."
While residents have struggled to reach grocery stores and supermarkets to fulfill their shopping needs, farmers' markets have blossomed in various neighborhoods. According to Richard McCarthy, of Marketumbrella.org, which runs the Crescent City Farmers' Markets, the markets complement regular stores.
"Grocery stores and farmers markets are not in competition with one another. Rather, they are different retail mechanisms that serve different purposes, have different business models, and different outcomes. Markets cultivate health-seeking consumers who then in turn walk into grocery stores demanding healthier foods."
McCarthy acknowledged the work of markets such as the Sankofa Farmers' Market in the Lower 9th Ward, which provides fresh, healthy food options every Saturday. He also raised the concern about how to hold grocers to the commitment of providing healthy food in the face of tight profit margins. Responding to this, Dolliole told The Louisiana Weekly that "New or existing stores funded through the FFRI program will dedicate significant shelf space (at least 15%) to fresh produce and promote product placement, marketing and outreach to low-income areas."
While voicing his full support of the Fresh Food Retailers' Initiative, McCarthy also said that grocery stores are not the only strategy for meeting food needs. "I endorse this as a beginning for more investments to ensure that...New Orleanians have a full array of options, [and] that options we invest in also benefit local production.
• The New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee
Zoe Sullivan is a contributing writer with The Louisiana Weekly.
Photo of Circle Food Store by Jeff Schwartz. Google map of NOLA area supermarkets by Jules Goins.
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