Community fridges, gardens sprout in Lafayette’s food deserts

Dale Honore at the Victory Garden
Dale Honore looks forward to the day his work at the Victory Garden isn't necessary. Photo by Robin May

Dale Honore hopes one day his job at the Victory Garden won’t be necessary. He picks weeds and trims plants in the neighborhood garden, which provides fresh produce and a spot for distributing canned goods. It’s one of the few sources of good nutrition for Lafayette’s Fightinville neighborhood.

“I’ll be so happy … that will be the happiest day of my life,” Honore says.

Food insecurity has grown in predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods like Fightinville. Grocery stores big and small have vacated Lafayette’s urban core. Townfolk, the group behind the Victory Garden, is part of an ad hoc network of hyperlocal organizations stepping in to fill gaps in the food supply chain and address the central challenge: access at the neighborhood level.

Few restaurants are in the neighborhood, also called LaPlace. The block is flanked by West Congress Street on one side and a convenience store that sells liquor and junk foods on the other.

Fightinville is considered to be part of a food desert. Car ownership in the census block is relatively low. Nearly 20% of households don’t have vehicles and live more than a half mile from a grocery store. The few discount grocers around sell mostly processed foods and very little produce.

TownFolk launched in 2010 as a community outreach organization. Today, its members teach residents how to garden and maintain healthy lifestyles on limited funds.

A grant from Whole Foods Market helped expand their operation into weekly food delivery for elderly and disabled residents through the TownFolk Table program. It provides food from the garden and food donated by Whole Foods. Anyone can walk up and grab a bag for free, no questions asked.

“A lot of the people we service in this are on fixed incomes, and with the rising cost of gas and electricity, it’s difficult to make ends meet. Sometimes it’s the choice of buying food or putting $5 more in the tank,” Honore says.

“You're hoping the fridge don’t break, the car don’t break. It’s like a big game of Jenga, you pull out one block and the whole thing falls down,” Honore says.

Customers shop at Fightinville Fresh
The Fightinville Fresh Market located on 315 Simcoe St. is one of the community-led efforts to address food insecurity on Lafayette's Northside. Photo by Robin May

Louisiana ranks third in the nation for the highest levels of food insecurity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Louisiana had 750,000 residents considered food insecure. As the peak of the pandemic in 2021 threw people into economic turmoil, an estimated 930,000 or 1 in 5 Louisiana residents were food insecure.

And the experience is disparate. In Louisiana, nearly a third of Black homes struggle with food insecurity compared to only 18% of white homes.

Just under 13% of Lafayette Parish’s population, or 31,000 people, is considered food insecure, according to 2020 data by Feeding America.

Racism and segregation helped form food deserts, says Corey Himes, policy and advocacy director at Feeding Louisiana. This has led to continued divestment from communities of color. Quality jobs exit and start a cycle of generational poverty that leads to even more businesses leaving the communities.

“The main drivers of food insecurity typically include unemployment, and poverty, which prevent adequate access to food, especially nutritious and healthier foods,” Himes says.

For years, Lafayette’s Northside has lost population and lacked investment. Walmart left the area in 2019, one of the last major grocery chains the community had access to.

More than 50% of Lafayette residents live in a census tract that meets the standard definition of food desert, says Kevin Blanchard of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, including the entirety of the Northside. Blanchard's food desert initiative mapped locations of Lafayette's grocery stores, starkly illustrating broad swaths of the parish without easy access to healthy food.

“For folks who live on the south side [who] see that map, they just have no idea. They kind of take for granted that they can go down the street and get some groceries,” Blanchard says.

Food desert map
Blue pins mark open grocery stores and a one-mile buffer. Red pins indicate where stores have closed.

It did not always look like this, Blanchard adds. The exodus of grocery chains like Walmart happened over the last two decades, driven by low sales.

“It’s just a number. If they’re not hitting on target, they’re moving,” Blanchard says.

Community organizations have stepped in where those big box stores left.

Lafayette Community Fridge saw the efforts of grassroots organizations in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and felt inspired to step in. The group started planning in 2020 and launched officially in 2021. “COVID was the motivation to start it. Seeing people really struggling. Everyone realized just how close they were to needing assistance,” says LCF member Erin Quinn. “We thought it would be cool to have one here because we saw them in other places.”

The organization now operates three fridges: two in Lafayette and one in Abbeville. They chose heavily trafficked areas in distressed neighborhoods. The fridges and accompanying pantries stock fruits, vegetables and home-cooked meals, along with paper towels and feminine hygiene products. Anyone can take what they need at no cost. Each location has a white board where patrons can jot requests and communicate. Food items and daily household supplies are posted.

The concept isn’t charity, according to Quinn; it’s mutual aid. While the organization has incorporated as a nonprofit, the group is non-hierarchical and informal in its organization.

Lafayette Community Fridge in Fightinville
Community fridges stock fruit, vegetables and other essentials, making them available free of charge. Photo by Robin May

“Mutual aid comes from more of a place of equality. We are helping each other out and showing solidarity for each other,” Quinn says. “I think having a grassroots community connection is a more immediate response to an immediate problem.”

LCF works with local restaurants and food providers to help stock the fridge as well. Food rescue, as Quinn calls it, is an important part of fighting food insecurity and lowering food waste: “I think if all places got on board with [food rescue], like restaurants and produce people it could make a huge difference.”

The main struggle for LCF is maintaining community involvement. “We all have full-time jobs and families, other stuff going on. It’s as simple as the community coming and putting things in, but if the community isn’t doing that as much, it puts a lot of pressure on us,” Quinn explains. “We grocery shop once a week, but I mean those groceries last an hour.”

Victory Gardens has faced similar challenges sustaining community involvement. The pandemic limited direct contact with customers and staff. Those who tended the garden were mostly elderly women who did not want to risk their health. Instead, they switched the TownTable program to contactless delivery, bringing groceries to doorsteps. Even as the pandemic increased the number of those facing food insecurity, their number of customers dropped, according to Honore.

While community organizations work at the block level, access remains a key challenge to dealing with the problem at scale.

Feeding Louisiana is working to expand the eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

In Louisiana, 20% of residents rely on SNAP benefits, compared with 13% nationwide. In Lafayette, 27% of the population received SNAP benefits in 2019.

“We should definitely continue to work to make the program[s] more accessible,” Himes says.

Streamlining the process of applying for the programs and giving more leeway for documentation issues and missed interview calls are a step toward making these programs more accessible.

Himes says it’s high time to revise the income threshold Louisiana uses to qualify households for food assistance.

But adjusting food assistance policy won’t help put more grocery stores back into neighborhoods like Fightinville.

LPTFA, a public trust that can finance public and private enterprises, is working to entice grocery stores to move back into the Northside.

Blanchard says the trust is putting together a program that can help offset the costs of running a grocery store, increasing margins to make operations viable. Local grocers often can’t afford to repair and replace aging equipment. That’s where LPTFA hopes to step.

The Guillory administration has proposed a $1 million grant to LPTFA for this initiative in the upcoming budget. Blanchard wants to leverage that grant for more funding, while chipping in $500,000 from the trust itself. In the near term, these efforts are filling gaps that appear to be widening as the Northside loses population and opportunity. The hope is a community that can provide for itself on its own terms.

“I don’t want to be doom and gloom, but I think there is potential,” Quinn sighs. “I think the more engaged we get, the closer we will become as a community.”