The East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority is taking applications for grants to help address the problem of “food deserts” in Baton Rouge — neighborhoods where healthy foods are not readily available, officials said.

Four grants of up to $20,000 each will be awarded to neighborhood stores to enable them to sell fresh fruits and vegetables as well as low-fat dairy products, said Chip Boyles of the RDA.

“We want to work with them to redesign portions of their store,” Boyles said. “We will help them change their interior layout if we need to.”

The grants could also be used to purchase refrigerator units or help with marketing, Boyles said.

Boyles said they reached out to businesses that may qualify for the grant.

“We sent fliers out to them,” he said. The deadline to submit an application is April 15, and a committee will decide the four winners by early May, he said.

The grant program will target stores in the 70802, 70805 and 70807 ZIP codes, according to a news release about the project, and is partially funded through a $1 million grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation.

Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, whose district includes at least parts of each of those three ZIP codes, said the grants would be welcomed.

“I think it would be absolutely huge,” she said.

Wicker said having the ability to buy fresh fruits at the corner store, rather than having to drive a considerable distance, is a big advantage. She said she could think of several businesses in her district that she hoped would apply.

“There are at least five within a 1-mile radius that I am trying to reach out to make sure they get involved,” Wicker said.

Fellow Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, whose district includes part of 70805, agreed.

“You’ve got a lot of corner stores that sell a lot of junk food, not a lot of good food,” she said. “I think the program is much needed.”

The grant program is closely linked to the Baton Rouge Food Access Policy Commission, a group formed last month by Mayor-President Kip Holden and the group Together Baton Rouge to combat “food deserts.”

Boyles sits on the commission.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 70,000 East Baton Rouge Parish residents live in “food deserts.”

The USDA defines a food desert as a “low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store,” according to a presentation given at the commission’s first meeting.

“Low income” is defined as a “census tract with at least 20 percent of the residents below poverty or median family income below 80 percent of the area’s median family income.”

Similarly, “low access” is defined as an area where “at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population resides one mile or more from a supermarket or large grocery store” where fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods are available for sale. In rural areas, the distance is extended to 10 miles.