Baton Rouge’s four mayoral candidates and nearly two-dozen candidates for seats on the Metro Council pledged Monday at a packed forum sponsored by the grassroots group Together Baton Rouge to work with that organization to solve local problems.
The candidates were each given only a minute to speak to the crowd of about 500, and were asked specifically to commit to supporting Together Baton Rouge’s latest initiative — eliminating “food deserts” or areas, specifically in low-income communities, that do not have major grocery stores.
Together Baton Rouge is a faith-based, nonprofit group made up of churches and other organizations that work together on social problems. The group gained prominence earlier year for its extensive work in helping get the bus tax passed through voter outreach.
The group has since expanded its focus to making healthy food options like fruits and vegetables available in low-income areas.
Sheila Spann, a Scotlandville resident, reminded elected officials attending the forum at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church that her neighborhood used to be full of shops and stores, until it began to decline in the 1970s.
“Now we have nothing but little corner stores,” Spann said. “We need stores with fruits and vegetables. Bring Scotlandville back to where it used to be.”
Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader, said 74,000 residents in the parish live more than a mile away from a major grocery store, which means they live in food deserts. He said residents who don’t have easy access to grocery stores have higher rates of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cancer.
Almost every candidate who spoke said they were eager and happy to partner with Together Baton Rouge and eliminate food deserts.
But Councilman Mike Walker, who is running for Mayor-President against Kip Holden, Gordon Mese and Steve Myers, had a caveat.
Walker, a Republican, promised to work with every group in the parish, but added that he “would never compromise my values.”
“If we disagree, we won’t be disagreeable,” said Walker, who was an opponent of the tax that Together Baton Rouge backed for the parish’s bus system.
Walker also said, “government doesn’t build grocery stores,” adding that private enterprise opens stores but is being hindered by the crime problem in the parish.
Holden said he would continue to work with Together Baton Rouge, and is working on an initiative with local food banks to provide food to residents in food deserts. Holden said he is also working on initiatives to provide healthy meals to children in schools, via his Healthy Baton Rouge plan.
Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois acknowledged that he has disagreed with some of the group’s philosophies. He admitted he was not a supporter of the bus tax but said he had other common sense solutions to address public transit.
Ted Rush, who is running for Metro Council in District 9 against Joel Boe’, said he would support eliminating food deserts, and promised to pledge $2,500 if Boe would match him.
He challenged all he candidates to put up a donation, but the offer was met with no response from the other elected officials.
Together Baton Rouge said fixing bridges, crime and public transportation were other focuses they hoped the candidates would commit to, calling them issues that affect all races, socio economic levels and geographic areas.
“We want them to exemplify what we exemplify — working together,” said Dianne Hanley, a Together Baton Rouge leader. Together Baton Rouge is nonpartisan and will not endorse candidates.
Candidates will face off in the Nov. 6 primary, and runoff elections will be decided Dec. 8.
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