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Finding Healthy Food in Post-Katrina New Orleans

By David Lewis
July 2009

Sarah Custer, a researcher for Bread for the World, fell in love with New Orleans during her recent six-month stay in the city. She explored the art, the food, and the music that still make New Orleans a cultural haven even after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

“But when I first went to the Lower Ninth Ward, I didn’t think it was part of the United States,” said Custer. Large chunks of the neighborhood still remain abandoned. Places where houses once stood remain untouched, and the majority of people have not returned.

The residents who chose to come back find it difficult to return to a sense of normalcy. With little infrastructure to return to, some businesses have not reopened their doors, particularly grocery stores. The lack of grocery stores meant low-income residents lacked access to fresh and healthy food since many do not have cars. They are forced to rely more and more on local corner stores and fast food chains.

According to Tulane University, low-income New Orleans residents shop at corner stores an average 14 times a month. These stores provide mostly junk food like chips and sodas that are high in saturated fat, sugar, and calories. What fruit and vegetables these stores do have usually sit in a small corner, rotting beyond recognition.

This has caused major health problems not only for New Orleans but for the state of Louisiana. The state has the fourth highest obesity rate in the country. Hurricane Katrina has worsened an already challenging health crisis. “It’s frustrating,” said Custer, who studied the food trend in New Orleans as a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow. “When you drive through different neighborhoods you see fast food places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, but no grocery stores.”

Custer remembers talking to a woman from Holy Cross, a section of Lower Ninth, who drove several miles away from her home to Uptown, a wealthier part of New Orleans that has a large amount of grocery stores. “It’s ridiculous that I have to go all the way there to get healthy food for me and my daughter,” she told Custer. “We should not have to accept the way our neighborhood is presented to us.”

Instead of blaming corner stores for all the health problems for New Orleans residents, Custer sees an opportunity to use corner stores to improve food security in low-income areas. As part of her fellowship, she worked with the Prevention Research Center of Tulane University and advised leaders of low-income communities in the city to work with corner stores in bringing healthy food—instead of junk food—into their stores.

Custer's actions are paying off as many neighborhood and merchant associations are taking the lead in combating the food crisis in New Orleans. The local government is playing its part by passing a law that makes it easier for farmers’ markets to operate in more areas of the city.

“After Katrina, there’s a lot of collaboration with the private sector and the local government,” said Custer. “The hurricane provided an opportunity to reshape the food environment.”

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