To fight food deserts, Lafayette invests in corner stores

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

A new initiative to address food deserts in Lafayette aims to target corner stores and grocery assistance recipients with programs to increase the availability and affordability of fresh food on Lafayette’s underserved Northside.

Access to healthy foods on the Northside has been a growing issue as a slew of traditional grocery stores have left the area over the past decade. Local solutions, like community fridges and gardens, have popped up in La Place and McComb-Veazey neighborhoods to fill the gap. But the need for easier access to healthier foods persists.

More than half of Lafayette’s population lives in what is commonly called food deserts, areas where low incomes are prevalent and access to fresh, healthy foods is limited, according to United Way of Acadiana, though UWA Director of Community Health Marissa Winters says the term gives people the wrong impression of those communities.

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

“Food desert areas have been created. They're not just like deserts. They’re not devoid of life,” she says. “The Northside of Lafayette, which this initiative is initially working on, the Northside is great. It's not a desert. It's an amazing community full of amazing people, and I think we should get away from saying things that continue to do the things that racist policies have created.”

The lack of access to healthier food options can cause people to rely on less nutritious foods for more of their meals, Winters says, leading to worse overall health and community-level disparities.

“If you eat a diet high in calories or unhealthy fats and high sodium and added sugars, that can lead to inadequate intake of essential nutrients like vitamins and fibers, which is increasing your risk of chronic diseases, obesity and just overall poor health outcomes,” she says. “We always like to talk about the social determinants of health, and having low or no access to foods that sustain a healthy lifestyle is something that contributes to health disparities and inequalities.”

To combat the low availability of fresh meals and produce on the Northside, UWA is launching its Lafayette Initiative for Food Equity through a pair of grants totaling about $1.3 million, Winters says, with $945,000 coming from Lafayette Consolidated Government’s federal American Rescue Plan Act cache. The remainder of LIFE’s funding is from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation. 

Disclosure: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana is a financial supporter of Straight News Online. Read our conflict of interest policy here.

The program is still in early planning stages, but its goal is to increase access to fresh produce and prepared meals on the Northside by partnering with some 30 corner stores to provide forgivable loans for produce and prepared meal equipment plus a dollar-to-dollar match for customers who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to buy fresh food at their stores.

“There’s a convenience store on pretty much every corner, and I’m sure some of them have fresh food, but they’re full of sodas and candies and things like that. So what we want to do is bring in healthy, fresh produce and prepared meals,” Winters says.

To that end, United Way and its partners in the food equity initiative are looking to successful models for improving community wellbeing by addressing healthy food access, like Philadelphia’s Food Trust, which has implemented similar corner store funding and SNAP matching programs alongside efforts to improve nutrition education and rely on local produce supply chains. Those approaches will be key to Lafayette’s initiative, Winters says, so that healthy foods are more readily available for Northside residents and to ensure the time-sensitive fresh food options don’t go to waste. 

“We want to foster those community connections with local farmers and stores, then build a reliable supply chain that brings that fresh produce and nutritious prepared meals to those corner stores,” Winters says.

“We're not just going to engage with the corner stores and say, ‘Here's some fresh produce,’ and then just have it sit on their shelves,” she continues. “We want to build a network of groups like Second Harvest Food Bank, which is doing nutrition education, to come in and set up a demo in the corner store for a quick and easy meal or go into schools and do nutrition education. Things like that.”

Winters says UWA and its partners in the initiative haven’t yet nailed down a timeline for when the program will begin partnering with the Northside’s numerous corner stores, but she is hopeful that funds will be available to corner stores by the end of this year.