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By Emily St. John Mandel
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Lower 9 Food Access Coalition Identifies Obstacles to Food Desert, Names Goals
The Lower Ninth Ward has been a hot topic since Katrina devastated the area, but smatterings of new homes and nonprofits can only do so much for the neighborhood’s long-term revitalization. People need to eat, and the closest thing Lower Ninth residents have to a grocery store is a Wal Mart in Chalmette, three miles from their homes.
The Lower 9th Food Access Coalition emerged from within the community, and they’re not interested in quick fixes. The area has been classified as a “food desert” since before the federal flood. The U.S.D.A. defines a food desert as any population of 500 or more that does not have a grocery store within a one-mile radius. The last time residents had a mid-sized grocery store in their neighborhood was 1987.
The coalition aims to identify the specific forces that stand in the way of food equality, eliminate those barriers, and attract sustainable commerce to the area.
Founder Jenga Mwendo was born in the Lower Ninth Ward and raised between there and New Orleans East. Mwendo said one of the most critical components of her team’s initiative was reaching the members of the community and taking their specific needs into account.
Rather than taking to the tweetosphere, Mwendo and her team began handing out fliers door-to-door in April of 2012.
“We really tried hard to make sure we reached as many Lower Ninth Ward residents as possible. We were aware that email and internet are not always the best ways to reach a lot of folks down here, so we made a very conscious choice not to advertise meetings that way,” Mwendo said. “We purposefully didn’t include the locations of the meeting [on the fliers]. Instead, we instructed people to contact us first to explain to them what it was about.”
The coalition also spoke at monthly Neighborhood Network Empowerment Association meetings, and they dropped off fliers at businesses up and down St. Claude and Claiborne. According to Mwendo, residents are battling preconceived notions of what low-income, African-American neighborhoods mean for business.
“[The Lower Ninth is] a primarily low-income, African-American neighborhood with very poor access to food. Grocery store operators will say the neighborhood is risky, and they make assumptions about the potential of crime and theft from the stores,” said Mwendo.
However, the Lower 9 Food Access Coalition tells a different story. According to projections from a study conducted by DePaul University, LSU, and UNO, a grocery store could be a highly lucrative endeavor. Based on data from the 2010 U.S. Census which indicates the Lower Ninth holds 3,775 households, an estimated 2,000 of those would spend over $5,000,000 a year on food consumption.
Currently, 61 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are homeowners. Since over 30 percent do not own cars, the grocery store would need to be located on the St. Claude commercial corridor or on Claiborne Avenue.
“We’re still human beings, and we still need to eat. Everybody has the right to have access to quality food,” said Mwendo. The community leader asked rhetorically, “How do you rebuild a neighborhood that’s so devastated?” The activist also noted the catch 22 in play. “People won’t come back if certain amenities aren’t there, but business owners won’t come back if there aren’t a number of people back in the neighborhood,” she said.
There are currently ten businesses selling any kind of food in the Lower Ninth. Out of these, only four are black-owned, seven sell junk food, three sell limited fresh meat, and only two sell limited fresh produce.
Access to high quality food becomes a human rights issue when one considers the health implications of corner store dining. African-American communities experience a disproportionate rate of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. All of these illnesses are diet-related.
Mwendo said the community discussed and determined three primary solutions for their lack of food access. Lower Ninth residents would like a mobile grocery store, a healthy corner store, and a school-based grocery store.
“Overall, these are things that the [coalition] is committed to working towards,” said Mwendo. “Having our money stay within our community is a positive thing, and several people mentioned that there has to be ‘Mom n’ Pop,’ businesses owned by residents,” said Mwendo.
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