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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lack of access to fresh food in the lower 9th ward

My best friend posted this CNN video on FB (the woman the reporter speaks to at the beginning is her sister in law).

I'm glad to see someone paying attention to this problem. The problem is real - I saw it firsthand recently, on my trip home. There is not a grocery store in sight in the lower 9th ward. In fact, for those who own cars that they could drive to the grocery store, it's only recently that there's a gas station in the area. And the overgrown lots and abandoned houses the reporter mentions in passing are common. I've talked to some of you about how my grandmother's old neighborhood has open fields in it where houses should be. It's disturbing, but it is, in my opinion, better than the alternative, which is the state of things in my best friend's neighborhood. Every day, on the drive back to her house, we passed several still-abandoned houses, many still bearing the search teams' marks noting when it was searched, by whom, and how many corpses were found. Someone said to me recently that she was tired of hearing people complain about Katrina. "It's be five years - MOVE ON!" I found myself wanting to drive her past those houses, and ask her how she suggested people "move on."

But I digress.

This post is about life in the lower 9th ward, post Katrina, especially the lack of access to fresh food. Sounds bad, yes? It is.

But, while the open fields and disaster-graffitied houses are new, the basic problem addressed in this video is not. As the reporter mentions, the nearest grocery store PRE-Katrina was a 1/2 hour walk away. I'm sure the situation has worsened post-Katrina, but my memories of the lower 9th ward (most of my family lived there) do not include easy access to fresh food. In the immediate area, within easy reach of residents who may not have cars (which is what the article is talking about), I remember liquor stores (easy access to alcohol and cigarettes), corner stores (easy access to processed foods and a rare overpriced fresh fruit), and, much later (when I was in middle or high school, maybe) Wagner's Meat Market (their slogan was "You can't beat Wagner's Meat"). My understanding - though I never checked - was that this was a discount meat store. They also sold gas.

Sounds bad, yes? It was.

And, this lack of options is not just an issue for the lower 9th ward in New Orleans, though I suspect that the situation has been magnified there by the effects of hurricane Katrina. Regardless of whether or not 80% of your city has been flooded by a catastrophic levee failure in the face of a category 5 hurricane, access to grocery stores - which tend to carry the widest selection of healthy food at reasonable prices - is often worse in low income neighborhoods. A 2009 Reuters article, about analysis of data from 54 studies published between 1985 and 2008, says that people in low income neighborhoods like the lower 9th ward "are less likely to have easy access to supermarkets carrying a wide variety of fresh produce and other healthy food." Several of the studies compared also show that stores in low income neighborhoods and minority communities are likely to carry lower quality foods.  I'd love to see some data comparing the lower 9th ward's access to fresh food pre- and post-Katrina, then comparing those numbers to the norm in other low-income neighborhoods nationwide. I suspect the results would be depressing, not simply for the way things are now, but for the way things have been there for a long time.

As my best friend asked this morning, "Where was the activism before the storm?"

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