Ambitious efforts to bring affordable healthy food options in some of Baton Rouge’s underserved communities could finally come to fruition with help from nearly $2 million in grants.
The city-parish plans to use the sizable donations from the Humana Foundation and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation to establish community gardens, a mobile market and even a few grocery stores in the 70805, 70807 and 70802 ZIP code areas — neighborhoods Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said have the highest rates of food insecurity and health disparities.
“We know that food deserts are indeed a reality in our community so we want to address the challenges on all levels,” Broome said at a press conference Thursday morning. “As a result of these programs, we predict, by the end of this year, every person living in 70805 will be able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables within one mile of their home.”
Addressing the food desert — areas where residents have limited access to a variety of affordable, healthy foods — in north Baton Rouge has been an ongoing effort since former mayor-president Kip Holden in 2013 created a Food Access Commission, which included representatives from faith-based activist group Together Baton Rouge.
Together Baton Rouge was instrumental in crafting several recommendations that informed many of the projects Broome announced on Thursday.
“We want to applaud the mayor for being committed to getting the funds to get this done,” said Edgar Cage, a lead organizer with Together Baton Rouge.
A failed attempt to address the food desert crisis involved the Capital Area Transit System in 2014 pledging to create a limited-stop route that would run on weekends to take residents in designated food deserts to grocery stores. CATS spokeswoman Amie McNaylor said Thursday the transit system wasn’t able to secure the funding needed to implement the Grocery Express.
“Our entire system, however, does provide access to grocery stores with healthy food options,” she said in an email.
The East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority in 2013 awarded a total of $100,000 in grants to five neighborhood stores in the 70802, 70805 and 70807 areas to help them improve their offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables. That initiative was partially funded through another grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation.
The latest funds — Humana Foundation’s $720,000 grant and the $1 million donation from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation — will go through Healthy BR’s Geaux Get Healthy Program.
Broome said Thursday the city-parish is partnering with Top Box, a New Orleans-based nonprofit community organization, on identifying at least two locations where corner stores can be established in north Baton Rouge. HOPE Credit Union is also working with the city-parish to bring a grocery store into the community through its fresh food initiative.
Top Box will also provide affordable fresh foods that residents can order online and pick up at local churches, corner stores or other convenient locations.
“We know that even with a grocery store present not everyone is able to get there due to other barriers,” Broome said. “So we took a head-on approach to addressing these challenges in all aspects.”
In partnership with Grow Baton Rouge, the city-parish will transform a school bus into a mobile market that will go directly into the city’s underserved communities.
The city-parish is also partnering with The Walls Project, a local nonprofit, to create an urban youth farm at BREC’s Howell Park where residents can grow their own produce in community gardens.
And a plot of city-parish land next to the Charles R. Kelly Community Center is set for transformation into a functional community space where Broome said cooking demonstrations, classes and various healthy food programs will take place to teach residents how to cook healthier, affordable meals. The community outdoor space will be created by MetroMorphosis.
“These efforts to address issues here in the 70805 and other communities throughout Baton Rouge are smart and thoughtful,” said Michael Tipton, head of communications for the Blue Cross Foundation. “They are designed on best practices and certainly speak to examples we hope other communities can learn from.”
Leslie Clements, program officer for the Humana Foundation, on Thursday also alluded to the possibility of future donations — more than $3 million over the next three years.
“It’s my hope that I’ll be back next year with a very large check,” Clements said.