Food Deserts: A Dangerous Lack of Choice

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Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly

With Thanksgiving approaching, people from all over the country will head to grocery stores to prepare for the US holiday. Every family has their own recipes, but just about every take of the tradition requires fruit and vegetables to make stuffing, salads- items that many in New Orleans do not have easy access to.

‘Food desert’ is a term that describes an area where residents cannot readily access affordable and fresh food. The Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are classic examples, profiled in documentaries and exposes, of neighborhoods with residents that are miles away from stores that sell fresh produce. The problem is lessened significantly for those who own cars and the gas money needed to drive to a grocery store outside of their food desert. But in a city where 30% living below the poverty line, according to the Brookings Institute, there are tens of thousands of New Orleanians who are subsequently stuck in their respective food deserts.

A Battle of Semantics

Since First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, that focuses on childhood nutrition, the issue of food scarcity is received increased attention. But with the majority of the Americans live in suburban sprawl settings, where long drives to commercial centers are common, it can be difficult to identify how many Americans are truly suffering in food desert conditions. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), overseer of everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, is the official designator in what is a food desert through the use of census data. An area is ruled a food desert if there are 500 or more individuals or 33 percent of a town’s population that reside more than one mile from a grocery store. (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).

The USDA’s definition of food deserts is often criticized for its vague wording. Does a small corner store or large gas station constitute as a ‘grocery store?’ Also the role of household income is not addressed. A five-mile trek for routine grocery shopping is a weekly routine for residents of affluent suburbs, but near impossible for those who live in low-income housing on the outskirts of New Orleans.

The other obstacle in establishing access to fresh produce is providing it at an affordable price. A family that lives off of less than $25,000 a year will find little reprieve in a boutique grocery store close to their home. The complexities of poverty also make it hard to calculate what constitutes as affordable food. And similarly to the problem with distance from grocery stores, anything that is difficult to quantify is also difficult to rectify.

The USDA and ‘Let’s Move’ program has dedicated $400 million towards tax incentives for grocery stores that open in food deserts. But one new store does not guarantee that low-income residents in the area have legitimate access to healthy food options. The Upper Ninth Ward is a deemed food desert where most residents shop at the Dollar General on the corner of Poland and St. Claude Avenue. But with the high-end St. Roch market opening, known for quality premade foods and farm-to-table cooking, Upper Ninth’s may no longer be deemed a food desert.

Raymond Carter, resident of the St. Roch area, does not share the ill will towards the St. Roch Market that others have, but admits that the new store is not on his radar. “It’s a nice looking building, it’s just better for me to shop other places”.

Food Deserts Mean Poor Health

The inevitable result of living in a food desert is a poor diet. Gas stations and other small storefronts provide sustenance, not a healthy lifestyle especially with children. Children who are denied a well-balanced diet are highly prone to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and poor mental health- problems that are prominent and often untreated in the black community.

Devonte, who chose to not give his last name, can only go shopping for his family if a neighbor drives him the 4 miles to the grocery store in Chalmette. For daily eating, he usually buys poboy and some ramen packages from the nearby Magnolia Gas Station to cover his lunch and dinner meals respectively. He and his friends all appear to be healthy teenagers but this is not the case for many in the Lower Ninth, and is definitely not for New Orleans’s black community as a whole. A 2012 study conducted by Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that those living in zip codes comprised predominately of African-Americans had a far greater chance of heart disease and early death. Perhaps the most troubling were zip codes encompassing Treme and the Seventh Ward, largely black neighborhoods, that had life expectancies of 54 with a 5 times greater chance to die from heart disease.

Those who are passionate about ‘food justice’, the growing social movement to combat unequal food distribution, are tired of low-income communities waiting for market forces and government assistance to combat food deserts. These activists have instead opted to build off of the progress made in urban farming, particularly in low-income areas. Sankofa Market and Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) are examples of organizations located in food deserts that are attempting to provide fresh produce to neighbors. The long-term plan is to give these neighborhoods control of their own food similarly to a rural farm community.

The goal is admittedly quixotic for Alex Goldman, staff member of OSBG, but he rejects the common perception that organic farming is elitist. “Organic farming is often seen as part of the white, rich and privileged world- and for good reason since there is a long history of those who sell arugula for $15 just because they know that there are those who will buy it if it says ‘organic’. “

OSBG staff will be quick to tell you the importance of selling their produce for a reasonable price- $8 for a bag of arugula being their standard. While the return is not as much as it perhaps could be, OSBG sees the organic food market as filled with ‘price-gouging’ practices that make the product unattainable for low-income buyers. Even worse, high price produce instill the long-term impression that this kind of food is not meant for them- a mindset that food activists besides those in OSBG have tried to combat.

After working on the OSBG farm, Devonte sees organic food as something that he will always prefer to eat. “I think everyone should learn how to grow. If the power goes off or things get bad, we’ll know how to survive.” With more studies showing the corrosive effects of pesticides and processed food, food justice activists are hoping that more resources will be allocated to provide healthy alternative to these communities that have the least choice.

 

Runoff: Vitter Vs. Edwards

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Charlie Turner Tweet: @charliemichio

Can also be read at Louisiana Data News Weekly, a publication on African-American issues, November 4th edition.

UPDATE: Edwards leads Vitter 51% to 35% as of November 16th

The runoff election for Louisiana’s next governor will be held on November 21st between Rep. John Bel Edwards (D) and Sen. David Vitter (R), in what is arguably the state’s most important election within the last decade. If you are a one-issue voter on abortion or gun control, then this election has little value as both candidates hold the same positions on most social issues. But on healthcare, education and social equality there are serious distinctions between the two candidates. These stances are especially relevant considering that whoever inherits the $1.6 billion budget deficit will be able to decide the fate of several Louisiana universities and hospitals that may close to remedy the fiscal hole Gov. Jindal is leaving behind. Investments made by our government take years to bear fruit, so what happens now will reverberate well past a four-year term.

Funding and Support

It is surprising that Vitter almost did not make it into the runoff, (garnering only 4% points over the next GOP rival in the open primary), considering the senator’s name recognition and incredible fundraising figures. Vitter has more financial backing than all other candidates combined, a feat he accomplished by capitalizing on the unrestricted nature of US campaign finance laws after Citizens United- a Supreme Court decision that Vitter supports. In fact, Vitter has been more than just a vocal supporter of limitless corporate and union money in politics, his campaign has partaken in the tear down of regulatory walls in campaign finance. This past summer, a federal court ruled that campaign dollars for Vitter’s senate seat could be moved to the PAC supporting his gubernatorial race. The decision could easily open the door for presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, to use contributions for their respective senate seats towards ambitions for the White House. Such a coup in an already lawless campaign finance environment was made possible from Vitter’s strong ties to national GOP figures. The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, the Vitter PAC in question, is managed by Charlie Spies who was an instrumental figure in establishing Mitt Romney’s fundraising apparatus in the 2012 Presidential election.

It is not hard to understand why Vitter has received such a strong backing from national GOP leaders that include John McCain, Chris Christie and others. During Vitter’s tenure in the US Senate, he has been a staunch ally of pro-business legislation as well as an effective disruptor of Democratic initiatives. For example, Vitter was the mastermind in defeating incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu by recruiting Rep. Bill Cassidy who was seen as the best option in the crucial midterm race. Vitter is undoubtedly more experienced with government, but the perception that an Edwards Administration would bring desired change could easily bring a Democratic governor.

Edwards has not served national office and is relying far more on local groups, which includes Republicans, which are tired of Gov. Jindal’s leadership and policies. While Jindal enjoyed wide support from state congress and national conservative pundits, Edwards remained a critic of the Governor’s reliance on tax breaks for big business and a refusal to increase taxes. Jindal like Vitter have both signed the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge. As a result, Edwards has received the support of unions, the sheriffs department and major education officials, groups that feel threatened by looming budget cuts and see a Vitter administration as the executor.

The differences in political background have been a major point of attack for both candidates, which has unfortunately distracted from their positions on the issues, especially those concerning poverty. The most prevalent distinction is Edwards’ unconditional promise to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, a policy change that 62% of Louisiana supports. Meanwhile, Vitter’s tenure in the US House and Senate could be characterized as a roadblock for federal anti-poverty programs, Medicaid included. The Senator has derided welfare initiatives in particular, from food stamps to the Lifeline program, for being wasteful and disincentives for full-time employment. In general, the issue of economic equality and the state’s role in combatting poverty may be the largest distinction between Edwards and Vitter.

Medicaid Expansion 

Vitter has stated that he may be open to expanding the federal-state partnership program once he began his run for the statehouse, but has previous stance of opposing the acceptance of the ACA provision. In fact, there are plenty of sound bytes on Vitter’s opposition to Medicaid expansion, including an appearance on CNN’s Crossfire two years ago. The Senator viewed the provision of the Affordable Care Act as another burden on the state’s budget despite the expansion being covered by federal dollars for 10 years. Now that Vitter has softened his tone since the governor’s race, he has been able to deflect Edwards’ attacks on the issue. Vitter’s argument is that everything must be on the table, and he cannot commit to expanding Medicaid until he has executive power. Vitter has made similar qualifications on other budget issues.

Edwards has joined the majority of Louisianans in stating the moral and economic responsibility to expand Medicaid with the other 40+ states that include many Republican governors. A Medicaid expansion will not solve the immediate issues in the state’s healthcare, but would greatly help emergency room and preventive care services that are facing cuts. Whether Louisiana will be able to handle the cost of expanded Medicaid 10 years down the road is a risk that Edwards, and the majority of current governors, have decided to take.

Minimum Wage

The movement for a higher minimum wage has not caught on in Louisiana as much as other states, but polls show that a significant portion of voters support a boost at the state level. Rep. Edwards has repeatedly stated that increasing the state’s minimum wage will be a number one priority. The economic argument being that Americans on the poverty line are more likely to spend increased earnings in order to meet basic necessities.

Vitter, along with the national GOP, see the minimum wage as an artificial levy on businesses that will prevent employers from hiring. But while raising the minimum wage may cause an immediate loss of roughly 500,000 jobs, almost every study shows that the increased consumerism from a higher minimum wage will improve the economy, which in turn will generate higher employment in the long run.

Welfare Programs

The term ‘roadblock’ was used previously to describe Sen. Vitter’s views on welfare programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but that may be an understatement considering the efforts he has made to restrict federal entitlements. Vitter proposed a bill in the Senate that would mandate food stamp recipients to show a photo ID to the cashier in order to stop abuse of the program. It is difficult to see a photo ID law saving the government much money since data shows that food stamp fraud is quite rare, and has fallen to the lowest rates of all time despite the surge in enrollment after the Great Recession. The real problem with photo ID laws is that they prevent those in need from using the service, especially African Americans. According to the Brennan Center School of Justice, 1 in 4 African Americans do not possess the identification required to participate in SNAP under Vitter’s proposed law because of the cost to purchase one. Meanwhile there have been no efforts to help distribute IDs to low income residents.

But when fully examining Vitter’s record on anti-poverty initiatives it is clear that his issue is more on principle rather than what is effective. He has proposed banning convicted felons who committed certain violent crimes from government-sponsored assistance. Non-violent offenders are not exempt from his quest to limit welfare either- Vitter supports measures to require drug-testing to qualify for federal assistance for anyone in need- a proposition that not only adds another layer of bureaucracy but also implies that those who have a history of drug-use should be cut off from safety-net programs. In a state with a highest-incarceration rate in the country, it is difficult to see how barring the most vulnerable from food stamps will help a sinking economy or improve public safety. However, as Vitter’s TV commercials attest, these stances help create an image of being ‘tough on crime’.

Perhaps most concerning for Louisiana’s black community is Vitter’s support for photo ID laws in federal elections. A tactic used in North Carolina and other states, admittedly to boost GOP candidates, has been barred from Louisiana to date. But Vitter has voted for a photo ID law in the US Senate in 2007 and has stated his support for mandating that everyone purchasing an ID if they want to participate in elections.

Edwards has not had the opportunity to speak on national welfare programs as much as Vitter. But he has effectively used his support for Medicaid expansion and public education to separate himself from Vitter’s incendiary rhetoric on safety net initiatives.

It is difficult to know whether Vitter would governor Louisiana with the same tone he displayed as a US Senator. After all, one can get away with symbolic votes and partisanship in congress where colleagues can override an individual’s decisions. But as Gov. Jindal has shown us, it is far harder to hide behind ideology in the statehouse where the level of influence is simply greater. While both are the same on many social issues, the two candidates have vastly different ideas of how to handle those living under poverty- an important distinction with Louisiana still being the second poorest state in the union.

Lower Ninth Ward: The Other Housing Market

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Also can be read, here, in the Louisiana Data News Weekly 

While New Orleans is in the midst of surging real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing, the Lower Ninth Ward is struggling to repopulate what was once the largest concentration of African-American homeownership in the US.

The neighborhood landscape is filled with empty lots, once homes of those unable to return after Hurricane Katrina, which are now under state control. Often filled with wild animals and trash, these abandoned lots of land have become a lingering problem that has continued to suppress the value of neighboring properties. Since the storm, New Orleans has combatted blight like many US cities have- shifting ownership away from the static control of state government and towards those who are incentivized to care for the land the most: next door neighbors.

There has been a collage of programs to help homeowners claim the abandoned lots that they share a fence with, dozens of who live in the Lower 9th. However, the majority of residents of the Lower 9th (median income $31,582) and other economically depressed areas have largely been unable to capitalize on these investment opportunities. Despite provisions to help low-income homeowners participate in this blight reduction strategy, the process in purchasing these lots is complex and costly. As a result, the Lower 9th streets most affected by blighted land are the least likely to see them developed on, further embedding these areas in a cycle of poverty.

The lack of upward mobility can be enormously frustrating for people who see minimal improvements in the city’s historically black community. Lower 9th homeowner Dianne Polk is an example of someone who has begun to loss faith in the city’s plan, “No one cares about this place. The Mayor, the city, the President come when they need to but no reason to think things will change”. In that moment, surrounding neighbors also could not help notice that the long-awaited repaving of their streets coincided perfectly with President Obama’s Katrina anniversary visit.

Even for those more optimistic, it is near impossible to navigate between the several different blight reduction programs and funding sources without some legal expertise. People like Polk are shocked that at how hard it is for neighbors to fix these lots that are clearly a public safety hazard.

The Costs In Owning A Vacant Lot 

The ‘Lot Next Door’ (LND) is the original initiative in providing homeowners the chance to own adjacent vacant lots and is credited for elevating the city’s housing market. When the program began in 2007, provisions were included to ensure that lower-income homeowners could still participate, but a degree of financial stability was still required.

The largest obstacle people in the Lower 9th faced when partaking in LND were the rates adjacent properties were priced at. Due to a Louisiana law that prohibits the sale of any state-owned property for under ‘fair-market value’, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) has little flexibility on pricing. The ‘fair market value’ requirement prevents the city from making the most dangerous and blighted properties cheap enough to buy- as a result, many Lower 9th residents are given $10 thousand price tags for the privilege to own dilapidated structures that they have taken care of for years.

With the amount of capital required to participate in LND, it is not surprisingly that the majority of lots purchased come from areas like Lakeview (median income $80,972) that were devastated by storm but with a comparatively more affluent demographic. Conversely, low-income residents of the Lower 9th were unable to take advantage of programs like LND before the program expired in 2014. In fact, a collection of 7 residents who participated in this story admitted to not knowing anyone who actually acquired vacant property through the Lot Next Door program. The program was known just not seen.

Ten years of watching the Lower Ninth Ward get left behind has spurred lawmakers to get creative in tackling the lack of economic opportunity in their neighborhoods. State Rep. Wesley Bishop decided to address the issue head-on by proposing a bill that would allow abandoned lots in the Lower Ninth Ward to be available for $100. But because of the Louisiana law, which restricted LND, that mandates the sale of state assets at ‘fair-market value’, the $100 a lot proposal had to be voted on as a ballot initiative in the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the Louisiana electorate was unable to see the benefit of jolting the neighborhood’s real estate market and rejected the proposal.

It is impossible to know exactly why Louisiana shot the idea down, but it would be shame if it stemmed from the belief that the proposal was a ‘government handout’ since that is not the case. If passed, the bill would have mandated participants of the program to not only maintain the property, but then build a house that must be inhabited for at least 5 years. The idea was to get people moving into the neighborhood quickly.

While Rep. Bishop is disappointed that the measure failed, he sees the bill as a symbol for the city’s appetite in aggressively meeting the social inequality that plagues the Lower 9th. With the emergence of Lot Next Door 3.0 there may very well be a renewed sense of urgency. The question is if the future policies are accessible by the homeowners who need the services the most.

Complexity Of The System

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Shannon Dupree look over the remains of his neighbor’s home.

The several iterations of Lot Next Door, along with the $100 a lot proposal and other blight reduction objectives may all come together for the lawmakers who designed them. But for those on the ground it is web of red tape making it hard to distinguish between an individual’s ineligibility for the program or a bureaucratic hold-up.

Brenda Dupre, life-long Lower 9th resident, is an example of those who have heard about programs like LND but has yet to see it in action. Whether it is LND, or another program, her main priority is to get rid of the abandoned building next door to her home. The deteriorated structure is still filled with the personal effects of her pre-Katrina neighbor as well as that of drifters yet there is no movement from the city on tearing down the hazardous site.

While Dupre is happy to have survived the years of repairs and multiple robberies, the crumbling structure two-feet from her childhood home remains the “bane of her existence”. In terms of public policy, it is a perplexing that vacant lots are dealt with before condemned buildings that are havens for illicit activities. With the building being in clear violation of coding enforcement, and not available on LND property lists, she has no idea which direction to take with the city.

Her son, Shannon Dupre, does not see the logic used in pricing vacant properties. “We’re not asking for $100 alot. But the price for properties should account how badly it affects others and how long neighbors have been fixing it up. There needs to be a better formula that makes it fairer.”

Unfortunately for residents suffering from blight, there is no one agency to direct all questions towards. Convoluted property laws in Louisiana coupled with a more conservative state legislature make it hard for New Orleans to streamline revitalization efforts, especially in areas like the Lower 9th that require subsidies. But despite little progress made, local lawmakers and community leaders are optimistic that increasing homeownership is the best way to provide the economic opportunities that residents have been deprived of for so long.

Preventing Prices Out

The rapid gentrification of the city has caused concern that native New Orleans may not be able to keep up with rising rental costs in the very neighborhoods that they help reestablish after Hurricane Katrina. Historically black communities like the Seventh Ward or Central City are undergoing demographic shifts that could potentially reach the Lower 9th if the real estate market continues to spike. But if native Lower 9th folks are able to own their homes, or expand the footprint of their property, then they can avoid being priced out of their homes even if the housing market reaches New York City levels.

But for many lawmakers, concerns over gentrification seem misplaced as the Lower 9th currently sports a dismal real estate market, prompting calls for $100 land sales. Lower 9th advocate Rep. Bishop even admits that the main objective is “to provide the community with goods and services”. That said, many residents who stood by their homes when neighbors left, plan on dying on their properties and not being price out. Brenda Dupre points to a sign on her fence with the word ‘Dupree’ along with a well-designed logo. “I had to fight for this sign. Along with everything else.”