May 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

Louisiana food deserts expand during pandemic

Kim Hart, author of Cities
Data: UrbanFootprint; Note: Colored by census blocks and grouped by county-level urban/rural classification; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Driven by a dramatic rise in unemployment, more than 1 in 3 Louisiana residents now lives in food insecure communities due to COVID-19, according to an analysis by data firm Urban Footprint.

Why it matters: People living in food deserts — usually more than a mile from a supermarket in a city or more than 10 miles in rural areas — have to make difficult choices between meeting basic needs like health care and food.

  • With drastically reduced public transit operations, many residents don't have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

The big picture: Food insecurity is increasing across the nation.

  • Before COVID-19, about 37 million Americans were considered food insecure.
  • That number has risen 46% since the beginning of the outbreak, according to Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, in an April interview with McKinsey.
  • The pandemic has exposed long-running vulnerabilities and stark inequalities in resource distribution, in both rural and urban areas.

Zooming in: Louisiana ranks third in the nation for risk of food insecurity, following the District of Columbia and Georgia. Nearly half of newly food insecure communities are small towns and unincorporated rural areas.

  • 1.6 million Louisiana residents now live in food insecure communities, an increase of more than 500,000 since the beginning of the crisis.
  • Food insecurity has jumped dramatically in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where approximately 65%  of residents live in food insecure communities. 
  • The top five food insecure cities in Louisiana are Monroe, New Orleans, Shreveport, Baton Rouge and Alexandria.

Details: Urban Footprint worked with Center for Planning Excellence, a Louisiana nonprofit, to assess the state's food insecurity levels, tracking changes in social vulnerability, economic stress, health risk and accessibility.

  • While these factors all influence the increase in food insecurity, the steep climb in unemployment across the state (now 35%) has been the biggest driver, said Joe DiStefano, CEO and co-founder of Urban Footprint.
  • New Orleans now has a 51% unemployment rate, followed by 49% in Chalmette and 45% in Terrytown.

What's next: Pop-up food pantries can be placed at schools and churches in food desert neighborhoods to boost access, ideally allowing residents to be within a 10-minute walk of a grocery store or food outlet that sells healthy options.

Go deeper: How the coronavirus is disrupting the global food supply

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