Food Insecurity: A Crisis in New Orleans

A picture of a ruined supermarket in historic Tremé, America’s first Black neighborhood via Wikimedia Commons.

6.2% of the U.S. population resides in food deserts (Woodruff et al. 2020), meaning that roughly 20.6 million people live in communities with low income and limited access to food. The prevalence of urban food deserts is particularly striking, given that urban areas usually have denser populations and more developed infrastructure. New Orleans is a prominent urban food desert with rates of food insecurity well above the national average and an acute food disparity.

Due to the geographical characteristics of New Orleans, the city is especially prone to natural disasters and food insecurity. The impact of natural disasters disproportionately affects low-income and minority populations. A longitudinal study of post-Katrina New Orleans reported that low-income and minority residents experienced a disproportionately greater continued risk of food insecurity in the months following the hurricane (Singleton et al., 2022). Last year, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, power outages persisted across the city for two weeks, causing significant losses in New Orleans’ food resources. Since low-income households are less likely to possess the financial and transportation capabilities to evacuate a natural disaster area, a greater majority of low-income households remained in New Orleans for the duration of Hurricane Ida and suffered the risks of injury and food insecurity as a result (Singleton et al. 2022).

The disparity in food access in the U.S. is closely linked to socio-economic and racial discrimination. Residents of food deserts in the U.S. are more likely to be unemployed, less educated, and have lower income levels (Woodruff et al., 2020). Food desert residents experience reduced socio-economic mobility; therefore, they generally lack the resources to relocate from these regions. The food insecurity crisis in New Orleans must be addressed through the lenses of both a public health issue and a social issue.

Comparative demographic data on food deserts and non-food deserts exposes underlying racial injustices. Food deserts disproportionately have larger African-American populations, as confirmed by multiple surveys of different urban food deserts (Woodruff et al. 2020) (Morris et al. 2019). In New Orleans regions with the highest levels of food insecurity, about 95% of the population is non-White (Ali et al. 2020). The positive correlation between food insecurity and non-White demographics reflects the discriminatory practices of food retail stores. Predominately-Black neighborhoods contain fewer supermarkets than predominately-White neighborhoods (Morris et al. 2019). The disparity in food access significantly contributes to the food insecurity crisis. Large grocery stores offer larger selections of food options with typically more healthy food choices and affordable prices. Without easily accessible healthy, and affordable food, low-income and predominately-Black communities are more prone to high rates of food insecurity. The demographic characteristics of the food insecurity crisis indicate that racial discrimination contributes to the formation of food deserts, including the New Orleans food desert.

Wide-spread food insecurity in New Orleans is a public health crisis, as well as a social issue. Households that experience food insecurity report higher rates of poor physical and mental health; children are at an increased risk for cognitive problems, and adults are more likely to suffer from chronic illness (Ali et al. 2022). Recent developments in public health research reveal new insight into how food insecurity impacts health outcomes.

A study conducted by the Emory Prevention Research Center on the relationship between limited access to nutritional foods and BMI found significant data associating food desert regions with high obesity rates. The healthy BMI for the standard adult, according to the CDC, falls between 18.5 and 24.9; obesity is categorized as a BMI of 30.0 or above. In the study, food desert residents reported overall higher BMI levels compared to non-food desert residents, and the mean BMI of 29.4 in food deserts borders on obesity levels (Woodruff et al. 2020). Obesity considerably increases an individual’s likelihood of developing chronic diseases and other life-threatening health problems. The association between obesity and food insecurity raises serious public health concerns.

Moreover, food insecurity impacts the health outcomes of people with pre-existing conditions. Patients with heart failure that live in a food desert are at a 21% increased risk of repeat all-cause hospitalization and a 30% increased risk of repeat heart failure-related hospitalization (Morris et al. 2019). Repeated hospitalizations negatively affect patients’ quality of life and generate a substantial financial burden on patients (Morris et al. 2019). Food insecurity amplifies the health risk of people who are already susceptible to health problems.

The impact of food insecurity on public health mirrors the environmental conditions of food deserts. Food desert communities possess “inadequate access or ability to acquire affordable and quality nutrition” (Ali et al. 2022). Regular dietary nutrition is a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention. The lack of access to nutrition in food deserts adversely influences the public health of these populations. Food deserts are also associated with low access to other resources that promote public health, including medical facilities and commercial physical activity-related facilities (Morris et al. 2019). These facilities encourage healthy behaviors and preventative care. Furthermore, people living in a food desert are less likely to have commercial health insurance to cover medical expenses (Morris et al. 2019). The financial stress of medical expenses de-incentivizes people to seek care regarding their health concerns.

Picture of ruined neighborhood grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward via Wikimedia Commons

The food insecurity crisis in New Orleans is a complex social and health issue. The problem requires a multi-dimensional response. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) concentrates on the economic issues associated with food insecurity by providing low-income households with financial support. While the program responds to an inherent component of the crisis, it does not address its underlying causes. An effective response to the food insecurity crisis must target the underlying systemic issues.

Local activism movements in New Orleans have made waves in crisis response. Culture Aid NOLA established a food distribution site to combat food insecurity. The ‘no barrier, stigma-free’ philosophy of the organization reduces the stigmatization surrounding food-access support and emphasizes the concept that food is a universal human right. The Sankofa Community Development Corporation organizes fresh produce markets and gardening classes in New Orleans. Top Box Foods offers discount food packages for low-income households at distribution sites throughout the city. The Grow Dat Youth Farm addresses the food crisis in New Orleans by facilitating educational programs for high schoolers to learn about sustainable urban agriculture.

These community organizations utilize an approach that considers the complex, structural nature of the issue and advocates for systemic changes. The intervention strategies leverage the food system as a mechanism to enact social changes in various public sectors: education, employment, community development, agriculture, environment, and health (Rose & O’Malley 2020). The organizations intend to increase employment, foster youth leadership, and improve food access (Rose & O’Malley 2020). The approach involves participatory social activism, which promotes agency and self-empowerment in the affected communities.

To produce lasting improvements to food access, we cannot solely attack the symptoms of the crisis; we must address the structural issues that cause food insecurity. Support local organizations, like Culture Aid NOLA, by volunteering and advocating for food justice. Societal changes begin at the local level.


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