‘If you live in the Lower Ninth Ward … it’s not easy to get to a grocery store.’
Of the 512 coronavirus-related deaths in New Orleans, an astronomical 76% of the victims have been black residents. That is startling, especially when comparing it to the city’s white population — which makes up just 21% of the death total.
While the web of issues that create this disparity is complex and comprehensive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that diabetes and heart disease increase the risk of severe COVID-19 illness. New Orleans — particularly its black population — has higher rates of both conditions than the national average.
One reason for these underlying health issues, according to Connor Deloach and many others, is a lack of access to fresh and healthy foods in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
“It’s a reason we wanted to begin working in New Orleans,” he explains. “There aren’t many places that suffer from a lack of fresh food the way NOLA does.” Connor is the co-founder and Executive Director of Top Box Foods, Louisiana — a community-based nonprofit organization with the declared mission of making healthy food affordable and accessible to all.
It’s a service that’s desperately needed, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Feeding America data from 2017 showed 85,000 New Orleanians (22% of the population) are considered “food insecure” — meaning they are without reliable access to nutritious, affordable food.
“There are whole sections of the city in which you can’t find a grocery store,” Connor said, “but you’ll see dozens of corner stores and fast food restaurants. People buy it because it’s cheap and it’s all they can get. There are literally neighborhoods with no fresh food.”
Food Deserts Everywhere
A neighborhood without access to fresh food is known as a “food desert.” The specific parameters of a food desert are set in different ways, but Connor defines it as being unable to find fresh food — including produce, which is often hardest to come by — within one mile of your home. (In suburban and rural areas, the geographic zone expands.)
Lack of food access isn’t only an issue in New Orleans, but Connor believes there are certain conditions that make it an especially challenging problem here.
“I think public transportation is one of the biggest issues we face,” he said. “If you don’t have a car, it takes a lot more time and effort to get outside your neighborhood here than in other cities. If you live in the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, it’s not easy to get to a grocery store.”
Connor says Hurricane Katrina is another NOLA-specific issue that is still contributing to our food woes, noting that grocery stores shut down in poorer neighborhoods following the storm, and many still have not reopened.
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A third issue is that — even if residents are able to take an hours-long public transportation trip to a grocery store — once they get there, they are often priced out.
“From the time seeds are put into the ground until the time food makes it onto our grocery store shelves, there are a lot of people who make money off of what we eat,” Conor explains. “We need to localize our food systems to make fresh food more affordable for New Orleanians.”
Fortunately for us, Connor and Top Box Foods have created two programs they hope will do just that: one brings healthy and affordable food into some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, while the other brings it directly to your door.
The Healthy Corner Store Collaborative
“There’s a preconceived notion that there are certain demographics that aren’t interested in purchasing fresh produce and healthy groceries,” Connor says. Top Box Foods started the Healthy Corner Store Collaborative with Liberty’s Kitchen to dispel that myth.
While grocery stores can be hard to come by, corner stores are ubiquitous. As many of us know, though, you’re more likely to find displays of colorful “Big Shot” sodas and “CheeWees” chips than fresh fruits and vegetables.
According to Connor, a big reason for the unbalanced food options at corner stores is that owners are worried their customers don’t want — and, thus, won’t buy — fresh food if they stock it.
“They’re worried about buying an entire case of potatoes, because they don’t want to lose that money if half the potatoes spoil,” Connor said. To address this concern, the Collaborative buys produce in bulk from local farmers and sells corner stores the exact amount they want.
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“Once they see how much their customers want fresh food, and how easily it is to sell, they end up asking us for more.”
The Healthy Corner Store Collaborative began in 2017, with corner stores joining for one year at a time. To date, the Collaborative has worked with 10 New Orleans convenience stores and sold more than 97,400 pieces of fresh fruit and vegetables in locations where previously there was none.
Connor says the program has helped to put produce in corner stores that previously hadn’t had any, and at a cheaper price than they could get if they went to a grocery store.
If you have a corner store you’d like to nominate to take part in the program, you can nominate them here.
Top Box Food’s primary program began in 2013 when they first arrived in New Orleans. It’s called the “Makin’ Groceries Program.”
Rather than spending money on a brick and mortar facility and shipping fruit and vegetables across the country, Connor says Top Box Foods uses those savings to purchase in bulk from local farmers and deliver boxes of fresh food directly to neighborhoods across the city at a value that saves New Orleanians as much as 40% off grocery store prices.
“Even when those living in food deserts manage to make it to a grocery store, they’re often faced with prices that are higher than they can afford,” Connor said. “We’ve found a way to alleviate that problem.”
The COVID pandemic has made access to fresh food even more of a challenge to the poor. While higher-income New Orleanians can turn to food delivery services to stay out of crowded stores, poorer residents are shut out because the programs often don’t accept food stamps.
Connor says more city residents across all income levels have started using “Makin’ Groceries” in recent months than ever before.
“Higher-income earners are signing up because they’re avoiding grocery stores, while more vulnerable residents are signing up because we accept food stamps and our prices are low.”
And he says the more customers Top Box Foods serves, the more affordable the program becomes for lower income New Orleanians.
“We’re a nonprofit, so as we reach scale,” Connor says, “we can use that revenue to further subsidize the price of fresh food for those who need it most.”
Deliveries are made everyday, Monday through Friday. You can view Top Box Food’s offerings and complete their order form here. Items include — but are not limited to — a 14-lb. box of fresh fruit ($20), a box of Crescent City Farmers Market produce ($25 for small; $40 for large), three pounds of frozen chicken breasts ($11), a pound of local and wild-caught shrimp ($8), and much more.
If you’d like to volunteer to sort, box and/or deliver food, check out this page.
Connor has no doubt many of the health issues that plague New Orleans are the result of food deserts and he knows introducing fresh foods into those neighborhoods will go a long way toward making New Orleanians healthier.
“Localizing food systems can make for a more equitable New Orleans,” he says. “So order food from us or volunteer. Help us make a difference.”