Making groceries made easier

New Orleans is famous for its rich food heritage, but lately local advocates and researchers have been pointing out that for many residents, just getting their hands on groceries can be difficult.

A recent survey conducted by Tulane University found that nearly 60 percent of low-income residents in the city must travel more than three miles to reach a supermarket. The study also found that only 58 percent of these residents owned a motor vehicle, making that grocery run all the more difficult.

City Hall and a coalition of private groups recently launched a new program aimed at proliferating retail outlets for fresh foods across the most needy New Orleans neighborhoods. Called the New Orleans Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, the program will provide forgivable or low-interest loans to help grocers open new stores, or improve or expand existing retail outlets selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

The city is working on this program with the Philadelphia-based Food Trust and HOPE (Hope Enterprise Corporation/Hope Credit Union), a community-development financial institution based in Jackson, Miss., which mixes public health goals with economic development.

“This is a program too long in coming that is finally here,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said during a press conference to unveil the initiative. “This not only promotes healthy diets but also promotes a healthy economy.”

HOPE CEO Bill Bynum agreed, saying that in addition to greater access to fresh foods the program also promises other pluses for the community.   
“Communities will be able to reap all the economic development benefits that come along with a local grocery store, (like) the creation of steady jobs at decent wages and serving as a catalyst for complementary retail stores and services nearby,” Bynum said.

The Fresh Food Retailer Initiative is funded with $7 million in federal grant money distributed through the city, which HOPE is matching on a dollar-to-dollar basis to bring the total investment to $14 million. Stores that receive the support will be required to dedicate significant shelf space to fresh produce and conduct marketing and outreach to low-income residents.

Advocates say access to better-quality food can lead to better diets and improved health overall for a community, especially in areas like obesity and heart disease. A study conducted in 2010 by the Washington, D.C.-based group Social Compact showed that just 30 full-service grocers had reopened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. 

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