More than 70,000 East Baton Rouge Parish residents live in “food deserts,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local officials say they are intent on addressing the problem.

Mayor-President Kip Holden and the group Together Baton Rouge said Thursday that they have teamed up to try to find a solution to the problem of “food deserts” in East Baton Rouge Parish, which are areas defined by poverty and poor access to supermarkets and large grocery stores.

Holden and Together Baton Rouge officials announced that they have formed the Food Access Policy Commission, a 13-member citizen panel that is dedicated to analyzing the problem and presenting solutions to parish and state authorities by the end of this year.

Members of the commission include researchers and representatives of nonprofit groups, the AgCenters at LSU and Southern University, private industry, real estate and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. The commission held its first meeting Thursday.

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.

More than 70,000 East Baton Rouge Parish residents live in food deserts, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

“In many of the poor areas, it has become a critical issue,” Holden said. “One mile doesn’t sound like a long way, but if you don’t have transportation, it is a long way.”

Holden said he hoped the program could help provide a long-term solution.

“Expanding food access helps … to create healthy and positive habits,” the mayor said.

Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said her entire district — which includes Southern, LSU, downtown and parts of Scotlandville — is a food desert.

“We don’t have a grocery store in my whole district,” she said.

There is a small neighborhood grocery in Spanish Town, she said, but nothing large enough to serve the entire district.

“I am very interested in this process,” Wicker said.

The commission will build on some of the work already done by Together Baton Rouge’s Food Access Action Team, said Broderick Bagert of Together Baton Rouge.

Commission member Stephanie Broyles, a researcher at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, said the USDA estimate of East Baton Rouge Parish residents living in food deserts may be too low.

She identified seven potential areas that could qualify as food deserts, housing more than 100,000 residents.

Those seven areas include parts of Scotlandville, downtown and Old South Baton Rouge, South Baton Rouge, Zion City/Greenwell Springs, Midcity, North Forest/Red Oaks and S. Sherwood Forest/Interstate 12/Coursey.

The Commission plans to attack the problem in three phases, Bagert said.

The first phase would be a problem analysis, which would last through March and April. The second would be a best practices analysis, running through May and June. The final phase would be focused on drafting recommendations and run July through October, Bagert said. Concurrent to all three phases would be a market analysis, he said.

The commission’s work is being funded as part of the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative Fresh Beginnings project, which received the majority of its funding from a $1 million Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Louisiana grant.