Poverty and health in Shreveport, as in cities around the world, don’t play nice. They don’t stay neatly within clear little boxes, easily fixed by one solution. Rather, they are deeply complex, messy, tangled and interrelated — and they affect us all. To complicate the picture even more, when we begin unpacking these issues to understand how change can best occur, we run aground of icebergs such as institutionalized racism in our food system, socioeconomically discriminatory patterns of development, uneven distribution of resources, and lack of access. Snowballed up in all of this are behaviors and perceptions that develop around these barriers, and often entrench the problem even more. We may know that hand-outs won’t “solve” poverty and hunger any more in Shreveport than it would in sub-Saharan Africa, but to have a meaningful conversation around what does help, some diving below those icebergs is required.

Let’s chip away at health and poverty just through the lens of food deserts. The term “food desert” refers to a community where there is no fresh, affordable nutritious food, and residents do not have easy access to such food. Specifically, the Department of Agriculture defines an urban food desert as a residential community where the nearest grocery is over one mile away and 20% of residents are living at or below the poverty rate. If there is any available food in these urban food deserts, it is usually packaged junk food, the kind you might find in the aisles of a gas station C-store. Not only is this expensive if you are trying to feed your family dinner, but it is also sorely lacking in basic health and nutrition.

Food policy research and data show that food deserts present significant health challenges, such as malnutrition, heart disease and diabetes for area adults and children. This is devastating on individual lives, and in economic terms, it means more emergency room and doctor visits for chronic, preventable diseases, and greater demand on social services and area nonprofits that help address what are often called “diseases of poverty,” stressing our shared tax burden and draining our city’s overall economic strength.

The effect on children is particularly profound. Today, it is estimated that one out of three kids is overweight; and surprisingly, both overweight and underweight kids in America may be deemed as malnourished. Malnutrition does not only imply that there is a lack of food, but rather a lack of nutrients. So while most American children may be taking in a great deal of calories, they may not be taking in many essential vitamins and nutrients.

With an overwhelming 36% percent of children in Caddo Parish obese or overweight, according to a collaborative study led by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, kids in our city, as around the country, are now facing problems that until very recently were only associated with middle age: high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes. The school performance of these young people who are paying the price of high-sugar, high-fat diets is also suffering. Recent studies from the Society for Neuroscience reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory. And the Nemours Children’s Health Foundation finds that children with insufficient diets are reported to have more problems with health, academic learning and psychosocial behavior.

Affecting health, education and economics, the issue is enormous — more Kraken than iceberg — and combatting it requires a dynamic and multidisciplinary approach.

ONE APPROACH: THE FULLER CENTER GROCERY & DELI
The Fuller Center for Housing of Northwest Louisiana was already neck-deep in these waters, as a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating poverty housing in Shreveport-Bossier City. The group had been working since 2006 to build and renovate over 100 homes in the area, before realizing that they could not build decent, affordable homes for people in communities that lack basic necessities – like healthy food — and hope that they will thrive.

Fuller Center NWLA has an overarching goal of strengthening communities as part of its mission to provide affordable and adequate housing for low-income, working families within the Shreveport-Bossier area. Its model of screening homeowner applicants, requiring “sweat-equity” in homebuilding and community reinvestment, and providing zero-interest loans, has been hugely successful in helping many Shreveporters achieve homeownership. And the resulting 54% drop in crime, high levels of occupancy and near-zero mortgage default rates prove there’s been a broader return on the investment as well. But after Fuller had built dozens of new, affordable homes in Allendale and renovated many others, they heard an urgent call from residents for a neighborhood grocery. In Allendale, the neighborhood’s nearest grocery store is over four miles away; 45% of residents do not have access to cars; the median income for a family of four is 17% below the national poverty rate; and the only food available is at the local dollar store.

“Many things help a community thrive, but decent housing and healthy food are non-negotiable,” said Lee A. Jeter Sr., Executive Director of the Fuller Center.

Fuller Center NWLA bought an abandoned building at 300 N. Allen Street in the heart of Allendale. The building had been a former grocery, but had laid vacant for years and Jeter – along with many Allendale neighbors – feared it would be bought and turned into a liquor store or payday loans establishment that would further deteriorate the community. With support from several local foundations and many dedicated individuals over the past five years, the Fuller Center team heavily renovated the building, hired neighborhood residents to run the grocery and stocked the shelves. The new Fuller Grocery and Deli is set to open within the next month.

Jeter knows that simply opening a grocery in a food desert won’t solve the problem. They are starting work with several area partners to offer nutritional classes, cooking demonstrations and health screenings.

Public health researchers in California and New York, where food deserts received a great deal of national and local attention and funding early on, noticed that the education of shoppers is much more predictive of their health than their income or even proximity to a grocery.   Improving people’s diet – with all of its knock on health, education and economic secondary effects – will require both making food accessible and affordable while also changing people’s perceptions and habits about food and health.

In a city where income levels are, on average, tightly correlated with race, creating opportunities for neighborhood ownership and addressing racial justice issues that create barriers to healthy food is also important. Low-income families in Shreveport neighborhoods like Cedar Grove and Allendale are disproportionately affected by inequalities in accessing healthy food. In neighborhoods with similar socio-economic demographics, residents spend up to 37% more of their income on food, due to smaller weekly food budgets and poorly-stocked, more expensive convenient stores, and they have more than twice the exposure to fast food restaurants than more affluent neighborhoods.

Over at the Fuller Grocery and Deli, there is an awareness of these deeper issues, and a belief that creating a real oasis in the Allendale food desert hinges on education and involvement.

“We know our grocery will only be successful if residents view it as a positive asset to their community, if they invest in it and we reinvest in them, and if the store becomes truly sustainable and valuable – both in terms of economics and in terms of people’s lives,” said Jeter.

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Image provided by American Heart Association

OTHER ORGANIZATIONS AFFECTING CHANGE THROUGH INNOVATION
While the issue is thorny and complicated, the energy and innovation of other local groups in town is rising up to meet the challenge in a variety of ways. These groups are rejecting the notion that there is one way to address health and poverty, and are employing a “systems approach” – interrelated, multi-pronged strategies — to integrate health changes holistically and preventatively into people’s lives.

It would be hard to find someone in the 318 who’s thought about these issues more, and has rolled her sleeves up higher, than Grace Peterson of the LSU Ag Center. As the Ag Center’s area nutrition agent, Peterson has devoted her career to addressing what she defines as the four major barriers to acquiring healthful food: lack of physical access, high cost of nutritious food, lack of knowledge of how to make healthy food choices, and lack of skills needed to prepare food healthily.

The community gardens in low-income neighborhoods that have sprung up under her guidance through the Red River Coalition of Community Gardeners are designed to address these four barriers through education and community engagement.

“We’re not just growing healthy food, we are using a systems approach to building healthy communities,” said Peterson. “In creating a community health hub, we provide education for healthy lifestyles and empower people to share their unique contributions.”

Peterson attributes her secret to finding opportunities for people to directly experience diet changes within a supportive environment. By giving people self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to succeed – in growing, cooking and eating healthier foods, she’s seen behavior change take root. Her educational program aimed at youth called Food Initiative Taskforce for Kids, or FIT for Kids, involves after-school activities and a summer program. In fact, the teenagers who run the Valencia Urban Youth Garden are seeing the benefits of sustainable farming as a promising business model, selling their organic produce to Wine Country Bistro.

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The Martin Luther King Health Center and Pharmacy, a nonprofit primary care health center and charitable pharmacy that serves uninsured or under-insured patients, is building a raft of wellness programming aimed at disease prevention and healthier living. Their new Everyday Choices Garden and Learning Center includes greenhouse gardens and an outdoor pavilion for exercise classes, cooking courses and other wellness programming. According to executive director Janet Mentesane, the new program serves as a learning laboratory, shifting the healthcare paradigm for underserved patients from a reactive model to a proactive one. The MLK Health Center is carefully tracking this new wellness program with the expectation that half of their 1500 patients will see positive improvements in lifestyle, fitness and dietary changes.

The Northwest Louisiana Interfaith Pharmacy, which serves as a safety net for individuals who have chronic disease and limited financial resources, is following the same proactive, preventative route with their Healthy Living classes and vegetable garden. Of the clients participating in the Healthy Living classes, Interfaith Pharmacy reports that 50% have maintained a healthy lifestyle change for three months or longer. For a very vulnerable population that might be homeless or home insecure – even one step towards better health, such as quitting smoking or eating more fresh fruit, can make a significant difference.

At Common Ground Community, a nearly all-volunteer driven organization with support from area churches to help relieve poverty in Cedar Grove, bang for buck — programmatically speaking — is key. In efforts to make the biggest impact in health and poverty, the group has innovated a Thursday night community market. The focus is on empowerment and engagement, whereby each of 80+ families is given a personal shopper to consult on recipes and meal planning and help “shop” the free food and household item pantry. The results are both subtle and profound.

“We’ve seen more dignity and less waste in offering people a market to shop, instead of handing them a bag of pre-selected food,” said Lisa Conly Cronin, Common Ground’s Chief Financial Officer. “Interestingly, we’ve also seen deepening relationships with volunteer staff and clients through the personal shopper relationship, which makes us all the more effective.”

Shreveport Green has also gotten involved in a more holistic approach to food justice, leveraging the yield from its many community produce gardens around town and at the Food Bank into a Mobile Market, that brings the fresh food into food desert neighborhoods and offers cooking demos.

Acting as area- and citywide umbrellas are the farmers’ markets and the membership organization Slow Food North Louisiana. The Shreveport Farmer’s market, the largest and oldest of the bunch, accepts SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) as part of its mission to encourage a strong, local food system and encourage stewardship of land and community through public markets.

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Slow Food North Louisiana is a chapter of Slow Food USA and was founded on the notion that food should be good, clean and fair for all. In promoting an understanding of where food comes from — in connecting the planet to the plate — Slow Food supports a mission of food sustainability and equity. The nonprofit’s advocacy, education and access through local events bring together “foodies,” growers and farmers, local chefs and individuals seeking greater social justice through food.

ALLENDALE AS TEST KITCHEN
It is both heartening and exciting to see so many organizations spending their considerable energy and talents dynamically addressing the poverty and health in Shreveport. It seems certain that positive change will take place. And for that change to be sustainable, to gain enough traction to make a citywide difference and take root in the low-income neighborhoods most deeply affected, it must be one that also addresses the many inequities surrounding the lack of access to food.

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We’ve got a “test kitchen” for that in Allendale. Unlike the provider-client model or organizations whose members, clients or staff are predominantly middle-to-upper income, the Fuller Grocery in Allendale will be managed and run by Allendale residents, its shelves stocked by the demands of its resident customers, and nutritional classes and health screenings tailored to the requests of residents.

The Fuller Grocery and Deli is putting its social mission of improving neighborhood health out into the playing field of the market. And in this way, its sum is greater than its parts. More than a neighborhood grocery, more than a nonprofit devoted to social change, it’s a test case for holistically addressing the iceberg of issues surrounding poverty and health in one small neighborhood. It’s a signal for how the well being of one of our most vulnerable populations might sustainably improve. And for a city as interconnected as ours, this represents an important prediction for us all.