Impact in Louisiana

Voices for Healthy Kids

Louisiana has one of the nation’s highest obesity rates, ranking fourth.  It also has some of the largest per capita food deserts. The lack of access to high-quality foods, fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the key reasons why a study found that 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.
“Louisiana is faced with one the most severe healthy-foods-access issues in the nation. It affects not only urban areas but also rural areas,” says Broderick Bagert, lead organizer for Together Baton Rouge, an organization that works to improve the lives of people living in the state’s capitol city.
It’s estimated that 1.3 million Louisiana residents currently have low access to grocery stores. In Baton Rouge alone, approximately 75,000 residents live in areas that have unacceptably low access to grocery stores.
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 Together Baton Rouge describes as, “a car without gas.”
The lack of funding for the initiative, coupled with growing obesity rates, led to a decision by an existing network of Louisiana groups to create a coalition to push for solutions to the problem of healthy food access. The religious and civic groups that made up the coalition had worked together for years on other social issues.
Bagart says that working with an existing network proved to be a significant advantage in the effort to improve access to healthy foods. “The coalition did not have to be built from scratch,” he says.
The coalition embarked on a campaign to fund the program and thereby begin to remedy the food desert problem that exists throughout Louisiana. In addition to broad and active support from religious and civic groups, the effort was also supported by the Louisiana agriculture commissioner and the agriculture and Black legislative caucuses.
With funding support from Voices for Healthy Kids, the coalition 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 healthy foods financing would create. One of the key points made in the engagements was how funding the Healthy Food Retail Act would provide significant opportunities for Louisiana’s farmers.
In spite of a record state deficit of $1.6 billion, the coalition was successful in 2015 in securing $400,000 in the state budget for healthy foods financing—funding that was approved by both houses of the Louisiana Legislature. 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.
"It was a boost that we were able to get funding in the budget, even with the veto,” says Bagart. “With the depth of support we're seeing, we're feeling very good about the future. The political leadership of this state is beginning to recognize that healthy food is not some secondary issue. It's the primary issue for a lot of people, and it's too important to ignore."

*The activities described in this story were funded primarily by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as part of its support for Voices for Healthy Kids. However, to the extent this story includes lobbying, no RWJF funds were used for lobbying.