Louisiana has one of the highest adolescent obesity rates, ranking fourth in the nation. Not surprisingly, it also has some of the largest per-capita food deserts. The lack of access to high-quality foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the key reasons why only 20 percent of adults in Louisiana eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, while 32 percent eat snack or junk foods every day and 42 percent drink soft drinks daily.
Not surprisingly, in 2009 with overwhelming bipartisan support, the Louisiana Legislature created a fresh-food-financing initiative known as the “healthy food retail act.” However, they did not provide the funding to implement the act, which Edgar Cage of the organization Together Baton Rouge describes as “a car without gas.”
The lack of funding for the initiative led to a decision by an existing network of groups to create a coalition to push for solutions to the problem of healthy-food access. The coalition consists of religious and civic groups, many of whom have worked together for years on other social issues.
The coalition embarked on a campaign to fund the healthy food retail act, and thereby began to remedy the food-desert problem that exists throughout Louisiana. The effort was also supported by the Louisiana agriculture commissioner and the agriculture and Black legislative caucuses. It employed a series of highly successful civic academy engagements, which combined statistics and facts with real-life experiences to educate the public and policymakers alike as to the challenges associated with low food access, and the opportunities that healthy foods financing would create.
In spite of a record state deficit of $1.6 billion, the coalition was successful in 2015 in securing funding in the state budget for healthy foods financing. Unfortunately, the funding fell victim to a gubernatorial line-item veto, as did several other budget items. The coalition views the setback as temporary in a multi-year campaign designed to bring better access to quality food for Louisiana’s citizens.