Officials: La. food needs dire before national downturn

When it comes to food insecurity in Louisiana, it’s not always the national economy.

Rhonda Jackson, campaign director for No Kid Hungry New Orleans, said the state’s chronic poverty problem keeps national issues, like the recent recession, from having too much of an effect. Unlike in other parts of the country, food-aid programs did not see a enormous surge of new applicants and users with worsening economic times.

“One of the reasons the recession never hit here was because the state had a depressed economy beforehand,” she said.

Mike Manning, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, called it “chronic poverty,” driven less by unemployment than by a lack of well-paying jobs. With better education and job opportunities, he said, many people could lift themselves out of food insecurity.

In New Orleans, Natalie Jayroe, president and chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, said her food bank has seen an uptick in households not eligible for federal aid but still struggling to make ends meet.

She said the situation is particularly difficult when someone loses a job and is unable to find work as quickly as they maybe did in the past.

“Instead of using it once or twice and finding that new job and being able to make their way again, we’re finding people are using food banks as a standard part of how people feed their families,” she said.

Jayroe also pointed out that applying for and maintaining eligibility for income-based food aid programs like SNAP is a time-consuming process that involves office visits and mounds of paperwork.

“We don’t think about how these people are also going to have energy to go on job interviews, get job training,” she said. “It gets harder and harder. The deeper you fall into the hole, the harder it is to get out.”

One national trend Louisiana won’t be able to avoid is the increase in food prices.

Kurt Guidry, a professor at the LSU AgCenter, said he expects to see a 3 percent to 4 percent jump in food prices this year, on top of similar increases in past few years.

Historically, he said, food prices only increased about 1 percent to 2 percent.

The culprit, he said, is higher costs for the raw commodities, transportation, processing and transactions in the food marketplace.

And he doesn’t expect those prices to decrease any time soon.

“At least for the time being, when you look at where commodity prices are and where fuel prices are, that’s where we’re going to be for the next four to five years,” he said. “We look to have reasonably high commodity prices, we look to have reasonably high fuel and energy costs.”

He also said higher food prices aren’t necessarily a boon to farmers.

“It has been a relatively good couple of years for our farmers because of those high commodity prices, but when we look at it, that’s only one side of the equation,” he said. “The cost of producing that corn, those soybeans, have also increased.”

Milk, he said, is a good example. The cost of a gallon of milk has creeped up in recent years, he said, but the amount dairy farmers get for their milk remained stable.

Higher food prices are also showing in a lower demand for food, Guidry said. In 2008, for example, there was a 5 percent to 6 percent increase in food prices, “a pretty high jump.”

The next year, prices only increased 1.8 percent. The smaller increase can be attributed to a shift in demand, he said.

“We can see some shifts away from food products to cheaper alternatives,” he said. “That’s probably what we’ll continue to see.”