After a slow recovery, the number of supermarkets in New Orleans has rebounded to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels, and many predominantly black neighborhoods now have nearly the same level of access as other areas, according to a new study by the Tulane Prevention Research Center.
There were 32 supermarkets in the city last year, more than double the number in 2007, two years after the storm, according to the study, which was published in the August issue of the Journal of Urban Health.
Concern over access to healthy foods has fueled a national discussion about so-called “food deserts” in poor urban areas. And in New Orleans, the absence of grocery stores in some neighborhoods is often seen as another sign of how uneven the post-storm recovery has been.
The figures from Tulane show that some areas of the city still lack a grocery store, but they suggest the situation is at least improving for white and black residents alike.
Before Katrina, there were fewer supermarkets in predominantly black neighborhoods. That disparity grew worse as some of those in black areas remained shuttered for a few years after Katrina, but the gap has since closed, particularly in the past six years.
Although some parts of the city still have no supermarkets, stores have opened in areas such as Mid-City, Broadmoor and the 7th Ward, and by last year, predominantly black neighborhoods — those where at least 80 percent of the population identify that way — had nearly the same access as other areas.
While previous studies have examined the impact of the food deserts within a community, few have measured how quickly and in what way a city’s retail food infrastructure is rebuilt after a disaster as widespread as the 2005 storm.
In this case, researchers tallied up how many supermarkets were in each neighborhood, then used the racial and ethnic makeup of the area’s population to measure disparities. The study mapped supermarkets at four points in the past decade: in 2004 to 2005 before Katrina, then in 2007, 2009 and 2014.
The study’s lead author, Adrienne Mundorf, said further research is needed to determine any long-term health impacts that may have been felt by neighborhoods that lacked access to healthy food after the storm. That is a long-term issue in many poor urban neighborhoods.
“We’ve seen improvements in the numbers, and I think sometimes that differs from what you see in real life,” said Mundorf, the center’s policy and advocacy manager. “I think that’s sort of pointing to the areas that still need improved food access. We certainly still have food deserts, and there’s certainly areas that are desperately in need of access. I think it paints a picture overall that we’re improving, but there’s still pockets of New Orleans that are food deserts.”
The study used census data to weigh demographic characteristics and also account for the notion that some residents shop beyond census-tract borders.
The number of New Orleans supermarkets fell sharply after Katrina, from 31 citywide to 15 in 2007. By 2009, the picture had improved, but it didn’t reach pre-Katrina levels until last year.
The study did not consider the type of supermarket in any given neighborhood, the quality of its selection or whether smaller stores or farmers’ markets helped serve residents’ needs.
Most of the grocery stores that closed after Katrina were replaced by new retailers, buoyed by a mix of private and public investment, the study found. Researchers pointed to the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, which went into effect in 2011, as helping that effort.
The initiative, a partnership among the city, the Food Trust and HOPE Enterprise Corp., offers low-cost, flexible financing to vendors so they can open, renovate or expand retail outlets in areas of the city that lack access to fresh food. Applicants are required to dedicate a portion of the store to offering fresh produce, meat or other groceries.
But simply opening up a new supermarket in an underserved community isn’t enough unless there’s buy-in from nearby residents, Mundorf said.
“It also really needs that engagement between whatever store might open up and the neighborhood to understand the needs of the customers,” she said. “It’s not just building the store, but it also involves education around healthy foods and nutrition in order to build up that customer support.”
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