Together Baton Rouge calls for food access funding ahead of budget debate

    As the Metro Council prepares to take up Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s proposed $918 million budget for next year, Together Baton Rouge is calling on the mayor to fund an initiative she backed on the campaign trail to increase food access in the parish’s many food deserts.

    The group has made the fresh food financing program one piece of a larger economic development vision that emphasizes investing in public services and helping low-income communities. Together Baton Rouge will hold a rally at 4:30 p.m. today to urge the mayor and council members that promised to support funding the program to keep their word.

    Despite the two sides meeting several times in recent months, the budget that Broome unveiled earlier this month—deemed a “standstill” budget—didn’t fund the program.

    Together Baton Rouge is pointing to an event last year when Broome, while on the campaign trail for mayor, said she would explicitly support sending $1.5 million for the program. Several Metro Council members also championed the initiative.

    “We did ask for (the fresh food financing program) to be a priority but at the end of the day it’s the mayor’s budget,” says councilwoman Tara Wicker, who is chairing this week’s budget hearings.

    In a statement today, the mayor says she has offered to develop a public-private funding stream to support the program, adding she will continue to work with Together Baton Rouge to implement a “pragmatic” funding system.
    “I am not confined to Together Baton Rouge’s model of closing the grocery gap,” Broome says. “As mayor-president, I have been in contact with private enterprises inviting them to locate their stores in underserved communities. Those discussions are still in progress.”

    Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge member who has led the food access initiative, says the group is asking not necessarily for the entire $1.5 million, but merely something to get the program up and running.

    “We hear the intent, we hear the commitment, but we don’t see the actual funding,” Cage says. “And we will always keep the door open, but the door’s been open now for over four years and nothing has really happened.”

    The Fresh Food Financing program would use local money to leverage federal and private dollars to bring grocery stores to low-income areas lacking food options. Under Together Baton Rouge’s proposal, the city would partner with an organization that could tap federal funding, vet grocers and offer grants or low-interest loans to help grocery stores get off the ground.

    The well-documented lack of access to healthy food in Baton Rouge is often cited as a driver of the area’s high obesity and diabetes rates. North Baton Rouge leaders have also pitched grocers, which are often anchors for larger retail projects, as economic development tools for the underserved area.

    “We understand the fiscal situation in our city budget,” Cage says. “At a minimum if we can get $600,000 to $625,000, that would be a sufficient amount of money to start one project.”

    —Sam Karlin

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