AgCenter investigates food systems to combat obesity in rural parishes

Tobie Blanchard
LSU AgCenter

Changing health behaviors in a population is no small task, but the LSU AgCenter has been working diligently in communities across the state to lower obesity rates and improve quality of life by increasing access to healthy foods.

In 2018, the LSU AgCenter entered a five-year agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a High Obesity Program to address the nutrition and physical activity environments of six rural Louisiana parishes with an adult obesity rate over 40%.

Denise Holston, AgCenter nutrition specialist and principal investigator for the project, and her team just completed food systems assessments of the six parishes, which include Assumption, Tensas, St. Helena, Madison, East Carroll and Morehouse.

“The purpose of these assessments was to understand the local food system and food access needs of High Obesity Program communities in Louisiana,” Holston said.

The assessment focused on retailers that accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, food pantries, recreational facilities, early care and education providers, transportation services and community input.

Some of the key findings from the deep dive into community assets included:

— All six parishes had an abundance of community assets related to the food system, with the potential to expand or improve their offerings of healthier foods.

— Food distribution sites such as food pantries and commodity distributions were found to have a high need for equipment and supplies to facilitate acquiring and stocking healthier food options.

— Dollar stores were considered an important food access point but scored low for available healthy food options.

— Residents often shopped outside of the parish because of poor quality and high prices in their parish. Higher rates of homes with no vehicles in five of the six parishes complicated the ability to access better quality food.

— A strong network of community farmers and food producers were identified in all six parishes.

Based on the assessments, Holston and her team made recommendations for each parish. They also used grant funds to help some parishes acquire items to improve food access, such as refrigerators at food pantries.

Some of the recommendations included:

— Enhance capacity of food distribution sites to enable procurement and storage of healthier items.

— Connect food pantries with local producers identified in each parish.

— Implement client choice models and nutrition standards at food distribution sites to improve access to and sustainability of healthful foods.

— Expand SNAP acceptance at local food outlets already selling fresh fruits and vegetables, such as farmers markets and produce stands.

— Target local grocery stores for healthy retail initiatives focused on connecting local producers to food retailers and making the healthy choice the easy choice for customers.

— Increase ridership and awareness of available on-demand transportation services to improve community-wide access to available healthy foods.

— Establish local and regional food policy councils to connect key food system stakeholders and ensure the sustainability of access to healthy foods in the community.

Holston said each parish has a coalition made up of community members and partners who are familiar with the challenges the community faces. Coalitions meet regularly to make actionable plans to address those challenges.

A customer exchanges SNAP tokens for fresh produce at the St. Helena Farmers Market in Greensburg. The market began using funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) to match $3 in free tokens for every $1 spent on eligible foods using SNAP/EBT benefits.

Cecilia Stevens, AgCenter food systems coordinator in northeast Louisiana, is organizing a food policy council in her region that consists of farmers, farm to school participants, retailers and nutrition educators.

“We are trying to keep this sustainable by empowering people in the community to get the resources they need to make these improvements,” Stevens said.

In Morehouse Parish, a community garden is being added to a community center. Stevens said it will allow 4-H’ers and other youth groups to learn about vegetable production or work with mentors. Extra produce will be sent to a homeless shelter.

Stevens also helped organize a farmers market vendor training to help growers understand how they can participate in local markets and increase farmers market participation in northeast Louisiana.

Another success from the program is the St. Helena Farmers Market, which operates through a partnership between the LSU AgCenter, Southern University Ag Center and St. Helena Healthy Communities Coalition.

Burnell Muse, Southern University Ag Center horticulture agent, worked with growers in the area, many of whom were mainly growing for their own consumption, to bring their extra produce to market.

“This has brought in cash for them, and they’ve started planting extra with the market in mind,” Muse said.

Cooking demonstrations at the market have helped introduce the community to vegetables such as kale that they may not have been accustomed to eating. Greens cooking contests have shown ways to cook vegetables more healthfully.

Assessment reports are available on the AgCenter’s website at http://bit.ly/hopassessment.