The deserts of Baton Rouge are marked by blight, empty buildings and low-income neighborhoods. You won’t find sand there and you most certainly won’t find a grocery store or supermarket. And these food deserts cover more than half the city, primarily north of Florida Boulevard.
Make no mistake, Baton Rouge is loaded with grocery stores, many located in close proximity fighting for customers. Those retailers, however, open their doors in the more affluent neighborhoods—like Southdowns—making it more difficult for some of the poorest families in the city to access fresh fruits and vegetables.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where at least 500 residents, or 30% of the population, live more than one mile from a supermarket or grocery store. Most of the food deserts in Baton Rouge are located in the north. There are at least 30 grocers south of Interstates 10 and 12, but less than 20 supermarkets north of the de facto dividing line.
Baton Rouge has for years tried to address the lack of grocery stores and fresh produce in underserved areas of the parish. Committees have been formed, reports issued, grants have been applied for and won. Yet those sporadic efforts, typically announced with great fanfare, have almost always achieved little, quickly losing steam before fading from sight.
Despite the lack of success to this point, local leaders are insistent that north Baton Rouge can support a grocery store. If so, then the question is this: What will it take to bring a food market to an area of town that needs it the most?
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome is picking up where her predecessors have failed, preparing to launch her own food desert initiative. Her plan is to funnel remaining recovery dollars from hurricanes Gustav and Ike in a new program she’s betting will be a catalyst for change.
Getting the mayor to discuss why past efforts have failed—and what lessons have been learned—is almost impossible. Instead, she prefers talking about her administration’s current efforts to “move the needle” for north Baton Rouge and other disinvested areas of the community. Partnering with organizations such as TopBox and Grow Baton Rouge, the mayor’s Healthy Baton Rouge initiative is working to increase the number of community gardens in disinvested communities and awarding grants to corner stores to help those retailers offer more fresh produce.
“I think there’s a significant population in north Baton Rouge that would whole-heartedly and enthusiastically welcome, support and patronize a grocery store,” Broome says. “We’re dealing with a disinvested community. I don’t want to say that’s a big deterrent.”
Working with Together Baton Rouge, Broome is launching Healthy Food Retail Initiative, an incentive program providing flexible financing options for grocers that agree to open in a food desert. The program is being managed by Hope Enterprise Corporation of the Mid-South, a Jackson, Mississippi-based credit union, which will make loans to supermarkets, grocery stores and other fresh food retailers that are located in or plan to open in the low-to-moderate income areas of Baton Rouge.
The organization, which has worked in multiple markets across the south in a similar capacity, is developing eligibility standards, will perform the underwriting and financing approval for businesses, and will then monitor the initiative through the submission of quarterly progress and financial reports.
Hope Enterprise is the same organization that partnered with New Orleans in 2011 for its Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. That city and Hope Enterprise partnered on $14 million in repackaged Community Development Block Grant funds to the program, which financed the opening of three new stores, including a Whole Foods Market.
The responsibility for recrutiting a potential grocer to north Baton Rouge falls to a coalition of the city-parish government, BRAC and the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District.
Kathy Saloy, of Hope Enterprises, says her group will market the area’s potential to economic development leaders as well as regional and national grocers and wholesalers. The goal is building a pipeline for interested parties. The city-parish coalition, however, must ultimately close the deal.
The new initiative does come with a cost. The city-parish is providing Hope Enterprise more than $1.5 million over a three-year span. Some $750,000 of the $1.5 million will come from the city-parish general fund, with the administration planning to repackage $795,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds remaining from hurricanes Gustav and Ike to cover the $1.2 million loan capital. Another $300,000 will be paid from Broome’s Healthy Baton Rouge program to cover the administrative costs. How the city will recover its money will be spelled out in loan documents with any retailers who agree to locate in a food desert.
Using incentives to address the problem is a popular solution across the country. Detroit leveraged some $4.2 million in city, state and federal incentives to land a Whole Foods in 2011, and in March, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators from the Midwest and East Coast introduced legislation that would award tax credits and grants to food retailers servicing low-income communities.
That investment from local governments to create incentives is necessary, Saloy says, to attract grocery stores to disinvested communities like north Baton Rouge.
“At the end of the day, the reason why you don’t have stores in lower income markets is because it can’t support a store,” Saloy says, adding they expect the project to be able to fund two to three new stores in Baton Rouge. “You have to bring in community development capital at a lower rate to invest in stores.”
Catalyst for development
Besides addressing public health, city officials are optimistic that attracting a grocery store will also act as a catalyst for other economic development in those areas.
A primary focus is Scotlandville, says Rowdy Gaudet, assistant chief administration officer, who believes the area has the population density and rooftop numbers necessary—coupled with the financing incentives—to attract a retailer. Some 67% percent of houses in Scotlandville have one or less vehicles, according to the 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment released by Healthy BR, and nearly 16% of those homes have no access to a car. By comparison, just 0.4% of homes in Carmel Acres and 0.1% in Shenandoah don’t have access to a car. The absence of a car means those residents must rely on public transportation to get to and from a grocery store—particularly if one is not within walking distance.
“Another benefit we consider of having a healthy retail program is that it will advance employment opportunities in that area,” Gaudet says, estimating 53% of the city lies in a food desert. “These stores will hire local.”
While the average new grocery store creates roughly 62 new positions, according to an economic impact study of new grocery development prepared by Tulane University in 2012, a 75,000-square-foot grocery store can create as many as 250 onsite jobs and support up to 660 direct and indirect jobs. Roughly 75% of the jobs created by new grocery stores and supermarkets in underserved areas are filled by local residents living within 3 miles of the store, according to a 2008 study for the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.
Hope Enterprise also takes economic impact of a new store into consideration when considering the granting of flexible financing to a retailer. “When we look at these types of projects, we ask how can we revitalize community as well?” Saloy says. “It stirs economic development in low income areas that need these the most.”