Food banks, nonprofits like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, churches and civic groups step in and fill the gap for people between where government programs end — usually 130 percent of the federal poverty level — and where food security begins.
Fighting hunger in Louisiana is too big a job for one single organization, said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana.
She calls it the “three-legged stool,” where government programs, nonprofits like the food banks and for-profit industries like farms and grocery stores work together to support thriving, well-fed communities.
“Our collaborations with the for-profit world and the government get better every day,” Jayroe said. “Long-term, those are the solutions to hunger.”
In Louisiana, the main role of food banks is to distribute food not only directly to the needy but also to partner agencies like churches, food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters, said Cindy Greenstein, executive director of the Louisiana Food Bank Association.
“In Louisiana, our food banks have provided services to about 609,000 people,” she said, which roughly mirrors the number of people who are food insecure in the state.
There are five food banks in Louisiana, one in each region of the state. South Louisiana is served by Jayroe’s Second Harvest Food Bank and by the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.
“A lot of them are community-level approaches,” she said. “Each community is distinct and you even have to take it down to the member agency level. Each one is completely different. The food banks are there for the communities, and that’s why they work really well with those community agencies.”
In New Orleans, for instance, Jayroe’s 23-parish food bank does a little more than distribution. It also hosts cooking classes and other programs.
One such program is Cooking Matters, a six-week program that can be tailored for any age group.
“We typically take this program into a neighborhood community,” Jayroe said. “We do a series of recipes; we bring in our own chefs. They’re demonstrating recipes that are healthier than maybe the lifestyles, the recipes and the food these families may be eating at this point.”
At a recent class at the New Orleans Mission, 12 to 15 women listened as Kate McDonald, the Cooking Matters coordinator for Second Harvest, discussed nutrition.
Wanda Yarbrough, 58, is a diabetic who is hoping to learn nutrition to lose weight and live healthier.
“I fought to get where I’m at at this point,” she said. “I just want to learn.”
Kimberly Thomas, a two-month resident of the shelter, is borderline diabetic and wants to learn to keep her family healthy.
“You kinda wish it was more than six weeks,” she said of the class.
Before she came to the shelter, Thomas said, she loved to cook, baking bread and making cakes from scratch for her family, including a 23-year-old daughter and a son, 17. Her son was her taste-tester in the kitchen, she said.
“When I cook, he’s always there with me,” Thomas said.
Then Thomas lost her job and her marriage buckled under the financial strain.
Despite her best efforts, she lost everything, she said, ending up living in Baton Rouge with a cousin.
“But it’s not my home,” the New Orleans resident said, and she came to the Mission to be closer to friends and family, including her son, who stayed in New Orleans for school and has earned a scholarship to Bard College in New York.
“I have good feelings about this,” she said about getting back on her feet, including taking the Cooking Matters class. “I don’t want to be hungry.”
Baton Rouge’s food bank takes a different approach.
Mike Manning, president and CEO of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, said his organization focuses on getting food to people and agencies in need.
“Predominantly, we’re more of a food pantry,” he said. “We try to operate as a wholesaler, if you will. The 125 or so agencies we work through are the distribution arms.”
Manning said the food bank serves about 117,000 in an 11-parish service area. He also championed a cooperative approach to ending food insecurity, with each entity doing what it can to fill the need.
“Food banks are not the end-all, be-all, but we’re supplemental,” he said. “Like SNAP, it’s not providing all of their meals.”
He said that, by a slim margin, the majority of the people served by his food bank are working poor families.
“You could have people who could qualify for assistance from us and not even know it,” he said, adding it could be the child who sits next to yours at school or the senior citizen in your Bible study,” he said.
“I tell people, ‘You’d be surprised. Start talking to people.’ ”
One of the partner agencies the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank supplies is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul kitchen on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge.
Denise Terrance, kitchen supervisor, said the society serves up to 480 people per day, depending on the time of the month. She said that, typically, the numbers increase as the month wears on and the money runs out.
“At the beginning of the month, the checks are in, food stamps are in and they’re trying to stretch it as far as they can,” she said. “By midmonth, they try to make it with us and then what they have. By the end of the month, they have no more of those and are relying strictly on us.”
The society serves a lunch seven days a week and also provides a brown-bag supper Monday through Friday.
On the weekends, Terrance said there are more kids in line, maybe with their grandparents, while during the week she serves mainly adults. No matter the day, though, Terrance said the crowd is varied, with working families picking up lunch alongside homeless people.
“Some of them have homes and jobs,” she said. “But when you think of having a job and you make $7.35, by the time you buy lunch every day, that takes a big chunk out of what you have.”
Last year, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank teamed up with Together Baton Rouge to start a mobile food pantry, bringing food distribution to the most needy areas of the city.
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration,” said Margaret Read, Together Baton Rouge’s co-team leader for food access.
Read said the pantry served 15,000 people with 200,000 pounds of food last year.
“It was a win for everyone,” she said. “The food bank was able to utilize the fresh produce, we were able to utilize our volunteers and the recipients were able to get food product.”
Shirley Holliday, 68, of Scotlandville, lined up at a mobile pantry distribution in March. She was one of the first in line for the fresh groceries, which included sweet potatoes, greens, yellow squash, poblano peppers, milk, yogurt and potatoes.
Holliday, who uses the food pantry once a month, said most produce is too expensive for her food budget but the pantry helps. “You don’t have to spend money to get them (here),” she said. “They’re so high.”
Zachary resident Barbara Rogers, 58, was in line for the first time. She said she learned about the event through her church bulletin.
“I’m trying to eat healthier,” she said.
Edgar Cage, Together Baton Rouge’s other co-team leader for food access, said the mobile pantry provides residents like Holliday and Rogers access to some foods they wouldn’t normally be able to get in their neighborhood stores.
The Greater Beach Grove Missionary Baptist Church showed up with a van full of seniors, all first-time visitors to the food pantry.
Juanita Horton said the church was drawn to the pantry by the availability of fresh produce, as the Plank Road fruit stand — the nearest source of fresh produce for most of the seniors — had closed.
“Most definitely, we’ll be back,” she said.
The Red Stick Farmers Market is also planning a mobile market that will take aim at increasing food access, said Copper Alvarez, the market’s executive director.
The mobile market will take in farmers’ goods on a consignment basis, Alvarez said, then drive to different stops around the city selling the products.
“We hope to pop up a minifarmers market at about eight different locations on a weekly basis,” Alvarez said. “We’re trying to increase food access to neighborhoods where there are not grocery stores and provide more farmers the opportunity to grow for profit.”
Together Baton Rouge is also a driving force behind the new Food Access Policy Commission, which held its first meeting Feb. 14 to combat food deserts in Baton Rouge. The panel is a joint effort between Together Baton Rouge and the Healthy City Initiative, which is run by the Mayor’s Office.
The federal government defines a food desert as an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly when an area is home to mainly lower-income communities.
The Rev. Jesse Bilberry, pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church on Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge, said the neighborhood his church serves is a perfect example.
“You can drive for miles and not find a healthy place to eat,” he said at the commission’s meeting.
The panel includes representatives from the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Southern University AgCenter, Together Baton Rouge, Associated Grocers, Louisiana Budget Project, Latter & Blum, Wal-Mart, LSU’s College of Agriculture, Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Liberty Bank.
It is charged with a three-pronged mission to find the reasons for food deserts, determine the best practices for getting rid of them and, finally, to recommend sustainable solutions for Baton Rouge.
Manning, of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, said the key to any solution is that it be achievable in the long term.
“The key to anything we do here is sustainability,” he said during the meeting. “Sustainable within these communities.”
Commission member David Gray, a policy analyst and State Fiscal Policy Institute fellow with the Louisiana Budget Project, said he experienced Baton Rouge’s food desert program firsthand.
When he moved to Baton Rouge after graduate school in California, the New Orleans native didn’t have a car.
“I figured I’d move close to downtown, since the budget project was located downtown,” he said.
So he was close to work but far from a grocery store. He was dependent on a Capital Area Transit System bus, “which may or may not come on schedule,” and usually ended up buying ramen noodles or Easy Mac from a convenience or liquor store.
He noticed his productivity suffered.
“When you eat ramen noodles every night and you wake up and you’re hungry, and you go to work and you’re hungry, it’s harder to focus,” Gray said.
It’s a problem, he said, that plagues both the city and the region regardless of your location or socio-economic status.
“Food access is a problem that impacts everybody,” he said. “Individuals who don’t have good access to food have poor health outcomes. Low-income people don’t go to the doctor until their health becomes critical and the cost of dealing with that health situation increases exponentially.”
But it’s not an insurmountable problem, he said.
With the right approach, Gray believes Baton Rouge has potential to fix it.
“It’s not David Gray with the Louisiana Budget Project or the people with the mayor,” he said. “The people who really understand the problem of food access are the people who are affected by it every day. We have just as much to learn from the community as they have to learn from us.”
Some nonprofit organizations focus on hunger in specific communities and age groups.
Rhonda Jackson’s Share Our Strength Louisiana is the state arm of the national organization that works to battle childhood hunger.
In Louisiana, the group mainly focuses on the New Orleans area. Share Our Strength landed here in 2010 with a program that features things like summer meals campaigns and improving access to meals in schools.
“A lot of kids are acting out in school because they’re hungry or not paying attention because they’re hungry,” she said, adding that children also often experience health problems that are also attributable to hunger.
Even though the program just focuses on New Orleans, Jackson said her group still has its work cut out for it, with the city’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the “unique” school system.
“Here, we have to talk to every individual charter school, charter school board, and sometimes they change over time,” she said. “There is no centralized data source, contact information, those kinds of things.”
Jackson said Share Our Strength tries to work with schools to get them on board with existing programs like the USDA’s school breakfast program.
“If you’re already on the school bus at six in the morning, you leave home too early to get breakfast and when you get to schools, you still don’t get it,” she said.
Jackson said only about 20 percent to 25 percent of New Orleans schoolchildren are eating breakfast at school.
“We don’t know if they’re eating breakfast at home or in other places,” she said. “It’s not for lack of trying. I think most parents are doing what they can.”
Share Our Strength also provides grants to some schools for meal programs.
“They’re not huge grants,” she said. “We’re not providing schools with $50,000 because it doesn’t take $50,000. You can do it for $1,500. It’s adapting whatever model works for your school.”
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