Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When it comes to food, place matters

A photo of the Circle Food Store in the heart of New Orleans shows the place submerged in six feet of water in the days just after Hurricane Katrina hit. But thanks to the work of a public-private partnership known as the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, which is aimed at improving food access in underserved areas, the same store is now thriving. And they’re known for the cheapest bell peppers in town (usually four or five for just $1).

During a session on “New Orleans Foodography: Place-based Food Access Issues in the 10th Year After Katrina,” researchers and health advocates talked about ways the area continues to recover. Even before being devastated by the hurricane, New Orleans was an area that, like many cities, was home to many low-income, minority communities with no grocery stores and few healthy food options. The key to change, however, was partnerships.

Getting grocers and the grocery industry on board is a critical step to improving food access, said session presenter Julia Koprak of the Food Trust. Another local success story she shared: a once-abandoned, boarded-up building on North Broad Street and Bienville Avenue that’s now an “innovative, fresh-food hub.” Known as the ReFresh project, it includes a Whole Foods Market, a cooking school for at-risk youth and a community garden.

Other presenters talked of the challenges both in measuring food access and in getting residents in underserved communities to adopt what’s known as alternative food networks, which could include farmers markets and community-supported agriculture.

Over at Tulane University, the Prevention Research Center is working to prevent or reduce overweight and obesity in the greater New Orleans area by shedding light on the social and physical environment factors that impact people’s physical activity levels and diet. Presenter Yuki Kato of Tulane's Department of Sociology worked to understand why residents of the local Hollygrove neighborhood, which is predominantly black and low-to-middle-income, were not buying fresh produce at a newly opened market. The market offers a weekly $25 box of produce or a la carte purchases, with no membership required.

What Kato and her colleagues discovered was that the market had become popular with nearby residents from higher-income areas, but not among residents in Hollygrove. One big challenge: Hollygrove residents weren’t on Facebook or Twitter, which is where the market was posting weekly specials and other information. Kato said that “digital divide” needs to be addressed in future outreach efforts.

Today, researchers at Tulane and elsewhere are working to track the ways stores and markets can help people live healthier lives. Check out this roundup of the Prevention Research Center’s recent work and learn more about ways to get healthy food projects off the ground from the Food Trust.

— D.C.

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