In many low-income parts of East Baton Rouge Parish, access to a traditional grocery store is a luxury. In north Baton Rouge in particular, where many residents don’t have cars and supermarkets don’t exist, families are forced to turn to fast food and processed convenience store snacks.
In an effort to address that problem in the short term, city officials and activists announced Friday that the Capital Area Transit System is working on creating a new limited-stop route that will run Saturdays taking residents from areas identified as “food deserts” directly to a grocery store.
The announcement came Friday at a meeting where faith-based activist group Together Baton Rouge and the city’s Food Access Commission unveiled a list of recommendations that will give low income residents living in food deserts, or “grocery gaps,” better access to healthy food options.
“If there’s such a thing as a whole food, then what am I giving my children? Half food?” asked Brookstown resident and mother Tamika Porter, who lamented the lack of accessible grocery stores in her neighborhood.
CATS CEO Bob Mirabito committed at the meeting to providing the new Saturday route to grocery stores by June. He also promised to re-evaluate every CATS route to ensure that buses are stopping at grocery stores where possible.
Commission officials said between 75,000 and 103,000 residents live in grocery gap neighborhoods, which they define as mostly low-income neighborhoods more than one mile from a grocery store. The group estimates that between 17 and 23 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish has limited access to grocery stores.
Clint Caldwell, a spokesman with SuperValu Corporation, a grocery retailer and supply chain, said his industry is missing opportunities to serve these areas.
He said many of the underserved neighborhoods identified in the parish are capable of sustaining a grocery store. For example, residents in Scotlandville spend $38 million a year on food but have to do it outside of their neighborhood for lack of a supermarket.
The Old South Baton Rouge area, which also lacks its own grocery store, spends another $23.5 million a year on food supplies, according to data collected by Associated Grocers.
David Gray, a commission member representing the Louisiana Budget Project, said the commission has been studying case studies on “model cities” for food access and conducted site visits to San Antonio, Baltimore and New Orleans.
The group also recommended creating a parish “Fresh Food Financing Initiative,” which would be a pool of money with public and private funds that could be used for commercial loans, forgivable loans and grants to attract retailers.
Mayor-President Kip Holden, who attended the commission meeting, said he would commit to helping find funding for the financing initiative in the next budget cycle. He said the funds could potentially come from grant money the city-parish receives through the Office of Community Development.
Other recommendations by Together Baton Rouge and the city’s Food Access Commission were to prioritize food access in all city-parish planning and economic development initiatives and to continue to supporting existing community-based initiatives to address food access issues. The existing initiatives include the mobile farmer’s market, the mobile food pantries and the Redevelopment Authority’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
The group also urged legislators to pressure the state to fund the Health Food Retail Act, which is a fund created by the Legislature in 2009 to attract retail food stores but which was never funded.