Neighborhood coalition unveils plan to bring more food choices to Lower 9th Ward

As the population of the lower 9th Ward gradually rebounds following Hurricane Katrina, residents are working to bring more quality food options into the neighborhood designated a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On Saturday, the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development unveiled a new “Food Action Plan” at a news conference at All Souls Episcopal Church on Caffin Avenue.

Burnell Cotlon attended the event because he said he purchased a blighted property in 2010 that he wants to turn into a grocery store but is facing an uphill battle in terms of financing and code enforcement issues.

Some requirements to access federal funding and subsidies available for creating healthy food options include having an operator with 15 years experience, Cotlon said. Trying to find someone with those qualifications comes with a $100,000 to $150,000 annual salary, Cotlon said.

Cotlon said that he’s not pursuing it just for the money. As a resident who returned after Katrina and has made investments in the neighborhood, Cotlon said that he wants to bring in a grocery store to address health issues such as diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.

The closest grocery is the Wal-Mart in St. Bernard Parish, Cotlon said, and it is a struggle for residents without access to vehicles, but shopping there also sends tax dollars out of the city.

The 47-page plan is the first step toward implementing initiatives that will bring more healthy options to the neighborhood, said Jenga Mwendo of the Lower Ninth Ward Food Access Coalition. She also said it is an important step in continuing to create awareness about the lack of investment in the neighborhood and the persistent lack of fresh and healthy food options.

Following eight monthly meetings with residents and city officials, Mwendo said the plan focuses on three solutions: For the short term, the coalition voted that a mobile grocery story was the best immediate option to improve access to fresh foods.

The intermediate solution is to encourage existing corner stores to expand their offerings of healthy food and to help entrepreneurs like Cotlon link to the necessary resources and expertise, Mwendo said.

“We want to see businesses like his flourish,” she said.

Based on a model in Michigan, the coalition is also pursuing a school-based grocery store as a long-term solution.

With that initiative, the students would run the grocery store as a teaching tool, learning business and management lessons while providing a needed service to the community.

But speakers at the meeting noted that a school with space is needed first and cited the Alfred Lawless School, where construction began recently, as a possibility.

Getting more produce into existing corner stores is a challenge, Mwendo said, because expansion and added refrigeration requires investment, and if many store owners are making money selling junk food, they have little incentive to increase their fresh food options. Mwendo said in their surveys they also found that most business owners who operate stores don’t live in the neighborhood.

In order to entice larger grocery store operators, City Council President Stacy Head said that the first threshold they look for is a neighborhood population that includes 2,500 “rooftops.”

Head said that the Lower 9th Ward was close but currently did not have quite enough.

When combined with the Holy Cross neighborhood, the area had about 2100 households according to the 2010 census data.

But Mwendo stressed that a location like Cotlon’s building, at Caffin Avenue and Galvez Street, is not far from Claiborne Avenue, on which 50,000 trips are made daily by vehicles travelling to and from St. Bernard Parish. She said that element makes a store much more viable.

Mwendo also noted other nearby neighborhoods that lack options, like the Upper 9th Ward and the Bywater.

In addition, population growth follows redevelopment, Mwendo noted. “How can we encourage residents to return or new ones to move here if we don’t have the basic amenities?” she asked.

Maurice Cox, director of Tulane City Center, told the coalition that he thought the notion of a school-based store and tying the operation of the store into the curriculum, was a “powerful idea.”

Attaching an initiative to youth is a good way to attract support and funding, Cox noted, citing the Grow Dat Youth Farm as an example.

“Whatever is going to come here,” Cox said, will need a “nontraditional solution.”