Oct. 24 is National Food Day. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to pig out on your favorite pizza and pie.
National Food Day, promoted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, celebrates healthy, affordable and sustainable food. It also seeks to increase food access and decrease “food deserts” across the country.
Think our area is immune to such problems? We’re not.
“Food deserts are defined by the USDA as an area whose residents, if they are in an urban place like Baton Rouge, have no grocery store within a mile of their homes,” says Sunanna Chand of the Healthy City Initiative, started four years ago by Mayor Kip Holden to coordinate community efforts on healthy eating and active lifestyles.
Luckily, some local organizations are taking action to make healthy foods more widely available in our community, she says.
Together Baton Rouge, an organization of more than 40 institutions, mostly churches, is tackling food deserts head on. They have started the Scotlandville Mobile Pantry with the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank to give free fruits and vegetables about twice a month to the Scotlandville community, Baton Rouge’s largest food desert.
“People start lining up at 4:30 in the morning,” says Edgar Cage, who co-chairs the mobile pantry with Margaret Read. “They are so appreciative. They know it’s a blessing.”
To date, Cage says the mobile pantry has given out more than 148,000 pounds of food, which serves 3,888 households, or about 12,500 people.
And while providing fresh fruits and vegetables, which come from surplus stocks at area grocers, is a first step, Cage says the ultimate goal is to have a supermarket locate in Scotlandville.
“We’re working with individuals to attract a grocery store,” says Cage, adding that while he’s hopeful, there’s no firm deal in place. “But we’ll never give up until we find the right fit.”
In addition to providing fresh produce, Cage says the pantry also offers ideas on how to prepare the food.
“Some people have never seen fresh asparagus or fresh Brussel sprouts before,” he says.
The pantry has had another perhaps unexpected consequence. On each pantry day, Cage says hundreds of volunteers help out.
“They’ve come from Episcopal High School, the Scotlandville football team, the Southern Lab football team, Boy Scouts and sororities and fraternities,” he says. “For some of them, it gives them a much better understanding of what it means to live in an area where you just can’t run to the grocery store to get what you need.”
He says it also helps make the connection that when someone is not getting proper nutrition they may not be learning to their full capacity. That could cause them to fall behind in school and perhaps drop out, “starting a spiral that just goes down. And it also has an effect on their health.”
In addition to Together Baton Rouge, help is coming from the Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Association, well known for its Red Stick Farmers Markets, which plans to soon expand its reach in the community.
In addition to its three locations — downtown on Saturdays, at Pennington Biomedical Research Center on Thursdays and seasonally at the Unitarian Church on Goodwood Boulevard on Tuesdays — the Red Stick Farmers Market is going to expand to the 70807, 70805 and 70802 zip codes.
Starting in early 2013, a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation will allow a Mobile Red Stick Farmers Market to operate in those areas, affecting 61,000 residents, says Chand.
“With all the incredible work being done to increase food access in Baton Rouge, we can expect a much healthier city in the very near future,” says Chand.
For more information, visit www.healthybr.com and www.facebook.com/HealthyBR.