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Together Baton Rouge Fights Health Disparity in Capital City

Louisiana is leading the charge in the food access movement in the South and we have Together Baton Rouge to thank for it.

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If you’ve heard of Together Baton Rouge, you may know the organization to be the largest and most diverse citizens’ organization in the history of the city. This group of minds has successfully turned community organizing across class and racial lines to make impactful change in the capital city.  

One major issue the group faces daily are the increasing amount of legislation and policies that further impact the health disparity of not only Baton Rouge, but Louisiana as a whole. According to a 2014 USDA report, 1.3 million Louisiana residents lack access to grocery stores causing a food desert in many parts of the state. The USDA defines a food desert as a “low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. “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. While many poorer neighborhoods are lined with convenient or corner stores that sell some groceries, those stores offer less healthful or fresh options and often cost 7 to 25 percent more. Milk, for example, is marked up as much as 16 percent in corner stores compared to full-service groceries. Residents who are the least able to afford groceries are paying more for them.

A Car Without Gas

Together Baton Rouge began the fight to address these issues in as early as 2009 by working with legislators to pass the strongly bipartisan Healthy Food Retail Act. The statute was to provide for the administration a financing program to stimulate investment in healthy food retail outlets in underserved areas of Louisiana, but there was no appropriation for the program that legislation session after the governor removed $400,000 for the program from the state’s budget.

Sustained Advocacy Makes a Difference

By continuing to work with coalition partners, Together Baton Rouge embarked on a multi-year campaign to fund the healthy food retail act, and thereby began to remedy the food desert problem that exists throughout Louisiana. Collaboration between other civic groups, nonprofits, and legislators finally lead to a victory this summer. On June 27, 2016 Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed the budget bill that appropriated $1 million in funding for the state to implement the Act.

With funding support from Voices for Healthy Kids, the coalition employed a series of highly-successful civic academy engagements, which combined statistics and facts with real-life experiences to educate the public and policymakers alike as to the challenges associated with low food access, and the opportunities healthy foods financing would create. One of the key points made in the engagements was how funding the Healthy Food Retail Act would provide significant opportunities for Louisiana’s farmers.

Food access is one of the six focus areas for Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association. Voices for Healthy Kids supported the efforts in Louisiana to increase access to healthy, affordable foods. For more information, visit www.voicesforhealthykids.org.

- Written by Ashley Bridges, Louisiana Government Relations Director

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