Commission makes recommendations on access to healthy food

Better health for residents, a boost to economic development and more equitable food costs for people living in low-income areas of East Baton Rouge Parish can all be addressed by giving more people access to fresh food and grocery stores, a panel says.

On Monday night, the East Baton Rouge Food Access Policy Commission released five draft recommendations on how to make that access a reality for areas of the parish currently living in a “food desert.

According to Together Baton Rouge, about 17 percent of the parish population lives in areas where there is an “unacceptably low access” to grocery stores.

The national average is about 8 percent of the population, said Edgar Cage, co-chairman of the Together Baton Rouge Food Research Action Team and member of the EBR Food Access Policy Commission.

“There are many nurturing mothers who care what goes into our bodies and our children’s bodies,” said Tamika Mason Porter, who lives on Prescott Road. “And we’ll make sacrifices to do it.”

The real issue, she said, is getting access to those good food choices.

The East Baton Rouge Food Access Policy Commission is a project of Together Baton Rouge and the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative, with a mission to look at local food access issues and best practices from around the country and to develop policy recommendations for the city-parish.

People who don’t live within a mile of a grocery store are much more likely to have an unhealthy diet, and those neighborhoods are more likely to have obesity rates much higher than neighborhoods with close access to a grocery store.

People without close access may rely on corner stores where prices can be 7 to 25 percent higher than those in a grocery store. In addition, grocery stores can be an anchor for economic development in an area.

Set up by Together Baton Rouge and the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative, the commission’s five recommendations on how to address the food desert problem were released at a public meeting Monday that drew a crowd of more than 80 people to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.

“We’re modeling this after what other cities and areas have done,” Cage said of the recommendations. “Those that have been successful are public/private partnerships.”

The commission recommends creating and funding a parishwide fresh food financing fund that would provide incentives for grocery stores or other fresh food options.

Improvements already have been made in some of these areas with a Matherne’s grocery store announcing a future downtown location.

However, more still needs to be done and the community needs to get involved to develop plans and put them into action, said Broderick Bagert, lead organizer with Together Baton Rouge.

Another recommendation involves working with the Capital Area Transit System to create a “grocery express” bus service with express routes between certain neighborhoods and grocery stores.

“A grocery store can’t be sustained in every low food-access area,” Cage said, but there are other options such as the Red Stick Mobile Farmer’s Market, which takes fresh produce into neighborhoods without good grocery access, or the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which is helping current stores to carry more fresh produce and other foods.

The commission also recommends asking the state legislature for money to be put into the Louisiana Fresh Food Financing Incentive, which was created in 2009 as a way to provide incentives to fresh food alternatives. Although the act was signed into law, the fund never had money put into it, Cage said.

The next phase will be to get public input on the draft recommendations, do outreach to elected officials and formulate final recommendations that will go to the Metro Council and mayor for action.

“This work is not designed to be put on the shelf someplace,” Cage said.

Any group or organization that would like to get a presentation about the commission’s recommendations or the problems areas of the parish face in getting access to fresh food can email contact@togetherbr.org. The group plans to meet next at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 25 at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church to continue the discussion over the draft recommendations.

“This really has to be driven by what people want to see happen,” Bagart said.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.