Five-year-old Akira Lewis poked her hand into the soil of a raised garden bed, coaxed out a fat sweet potato and proudly dropped it into a grocery sack held by her grandmother, Jackie Jordan.

“I like coming up here,” Akira said of the We Grow Together campus in Shreveport’s Stoner Hill neighborhood. “I like to eat kale and carrots.”

Nurturing that kind of interest in healthy food is the focus of We Grow Together, an initiative to work towards a healthy regional food system, according to Dr. Grace Peterson, LSU AgCenter area nutrition agent. The plan grew out of Great Expectations: The Shreveport-Caddo Vision for 2030, a master plan adopted in 2010.

Led primarily by volunteers, among the initiative’s partners are LSU AgCenter, Red River Coalition of Community Gardeners, Northwest Louisiana Master Gardeners, Slow Food North Louisiana, LSU School of Allied Health, LSU Health, Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana, Martin Luther King Health Center, the Community Foundation of North Louisiana and the City of Shreveport.

WGT addresses two goals: that regionally grown food is available to people in this area and that all people have access to nutritious food. “We want more farmers so we can have more regionally grown food available to people in a variety of outlets, including restaurants, stores and neighborhoods,” Peterson said. “And we want everybody in our area to have access to nutritious food.” But there’s more to access than you might think. Obvious barriers include financial access and physical access—Shreveport alone has 19 food deserts, low-income neighborhoods where at least 33 percent of the population live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store.

“But there’s two knowledge barriers,” Peterson said. “Do I know what to eat that’s nutritious and do I know how to prepare it in a nutritious way?”’ Addressing these knowledge-based barriers just got easier with an expansion at the WGT campus, located at 1613 Martha St. The city recently finished remodeling a donated house moved from adjudicated property which will serve as classroom/kitchen/office space, joining the community garden installed nearby about three years ago by the Red River Coalition of Community Gardens. The facility will provide a site for cooking demonstrations and health education events for local residents, complementing the ongoing garden education taking place outdoors. It will also serve as a community health hub model where training can take place for volunteers to replicate the program in other neighborhoods, beginning in under-resourced areas.

“For people to truly value the importance of nutritious food, they need to see how that impacts their health and so we’ve changed our model from calling it a community food hub to a community health hub,” Peterson said. The first pilot is taking place at the Bernstein Center of Paradise Baptist Church on Hollywood Avenue. Since the facility is a food pantry pickup site, it has a built-in audience and will also draw church members and neighborhood residents. The first Community Health Connections Day, which was held in March, drew more than 100 people who were able to talk with LSU Health medical students, Allied Health students and other trained advocates about topics ranging from diabetes to nutrition to how to read a medicine bottle.

Health education and access to healthy food are serious issues in our state. In 2016, Louisiana had the fifth-highest rate of adult obesity in the nation at 35.5 percent, up from 22.6 percent in 2000 (The State of Obesity). As the obesity rate rises, so do illnesses associated with it: hypertension, diabetes, certain cancers, arthritis. Cookie Coleman, founding president of the Red River Coalition of Community Gardeners, grew up in the Stoner Hill neighborhood and taught school there as an adult. She began working with WGT as a volunteer and now has a part-time job as a nutrition educator funded by a grant. Coleman has seen firsthand the health issues caused by poor food choices and believes neighborhood health hubs can foster real change through offering ongoing education in a neighborhood setting where participants feel comfortable.

“It’s a vision that I think will work because the programming is really for the community,” she said. “It’s friends and relationships and better health. It’s as simple as a child’s eyes getting wide open to see a carrot out of the ground. If I’ve done that, I’m good.”

Goal: Grow More Local Farmers

Slow Food North Louisiana has been a leading advocate for locally grown, sustainable food in our area and is serving a leading role in the WGT goal to encourage more local farmers to plant food crops instead of just commodity crops like soybeans and corn.

While chapter chairman Angie White doesn’t have hard data, anecdotally she knows some local farmers have added more land to food production.

“It is very exciting to see traditional row crop farmers experimenting with it and I hope they will see enough of a return on their investment to keep doing it,” she said. “And recently Mahaffey Farms announced they purchased a long-closed golf course adjacent to their farm that they will expand into and greatly expand their farm store.”

Consumers can help encourage expansion by shopping at farmer’s markets. “When you buy from vendors there, ask them if you can come to their farm to see where they operate and how they run their farms. If they are doing it right, they should have no problem with that. By making these kinds of connections and building relationships with our local farmers, we will become a more educated food community. Ask your favorite restaurants if they serve locally grown products, or if it is something they would consider doing if more locally grown food was available to them. Connect those farmers and restaurant owners/chefs to Slow Food so we can add them to the Farmer-Chef Alliance we are helping to grow under the We Grow Together umbrella. Our email is slowfoodnla@gmail.com.”