Original article by Rachel Pearson in The Guardian (August 18, 2015). Link to the original article here.
Black residents gain increased access to grocery stores post-Katrina, study says
New research released 10 years after hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans shows that more residents can access fresh, healthy food at grocery stores. Lead author Adrienne Mundorf of the Tulane Prevention Research Center has found not only that the absolute number of grocery stores in New Orleans has rebounded to pre-Katrina levels, but also that racial disparities in access to grocery stores have decreased.
In New Orleans, racial disparities in food access worsened in the first years after the storm. But by 2014, more new supermarkets had moved into predominantly African American neighborhoods, the study published in the Journal of Urban Health found.
There is no bright line of evidence that points from grocery stores to better health, but many studies, when considered together, link access and health. Americans who live near grocery stores eat more fruits and vegetables on average, and inserting grocery stores with culturally appropriate, affordable food options into struggling communities can cause measurable improvements in health. These improvements are particularly marked, Mundorf explained, when improved access to fresh food is accompanied by nutrition education.
A major 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine focused on obesity as an environmental disease, arguing that policymakers can combat obesity most effectively by ensuring that low-income communities and communities of color have access to healthy foods, safe places to exercise, and evidence-based wellness education in schools and doctors’ offices. Mundorf’s findings suggest that policymakers in New Orleans are beginning to heed this research.
Mundorf attributes the progress in New Orleans in part to a “feeling of rebuilding” in the city, and potentially also to the Fresh Food Retailer’s Initiative(FFRI), a cooperative venture between the city, the Food Trust, and the Hope Enterprise Corporation. The FFRI provides low-interest and forgivable loans to help grocers expand, rebuild, or start new grocery stores in vulnerable neighborhoods in New Orleans.
Julia Koprak, senior associate at the Food Trust, explained that the upfront financing helps get new stores established. However, FFRI-funded projects are expected to be self-sustaining in the long run. “By reducing the cost gap to get started, we’ve been able to get grocers established in neighborhoods where they wouldn’t otherwise,” Koprak said.
So far, the FFRI has contributed funding for four of the 17 supermarkets that have been founded or rebuilt in New Orleans since 2007. Koprak said the Food Trust hopes to announce new partnerships in New Orleans later this year.
“Improving access to groceries is not just about health,” Koprak said. “It’s about economic development, community revitalization, and everyone deserving access to healthy fresh food no matter where they live.”
And yet some New Orleans neighborhoods – including neighborhoods in New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward – still lack grocery stores.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, a historically African American neighborhood devastated by Katrina, the Backyard Gardener’s Network has arisen in part to address the lack of access to healthy food. Volunteers from the neighborhood plant, grow and cook together, drawing on local food traditions and the knowledge of Lower Ninth Ward gardeners and cooks.
Founder Jenga Mwenda has called the lack of access to grocery stores in her neighborhood “an injustice”. Many residents in the Lower Ninth Ward also lack cars, and damaged roads and sidewalks can be impossible to navigate – especially for people with limited mobility.
Mundorf and Koprak both pointed to the damaged infrastructure and historical lack of investment in the Lower Ninth as factors that complicate access to food.
“Ultimately we really support nutrition education, but until you have good access where you live, it’s hard to make use of that education,” Koprak said. “It’s hard to ask people to follow these nutrition guidelines and purchase and prepare healthy food if they have zero choices.”
For Mundorf, the issue of food access is also personal. She survived cancer and the accompanying treatment in her twenties.
“When I was done with treatment, my doctor said, ‘OK, you’re young, your cancer’s gone – stay healthy,’” she said. “Access to fresh fruits and vegetables was integral to my own recovery. Everyone deserves that.”