We’re in a city celebrated for its cuisine, and it’s the time of year when families gather around their tables to feast on stuffed mirlitons, gumbo, candied sweet potatoes, and pecan pie. But for the 23 percent of New Orleanians who are food insecure, getting food on the table on a regular basis is a constant challenge.
In a political climate pushing back on assisting vulnerable populations, the struggle notched at least a temporary victory this week as a House majority stood up to pressure from the right and passed a farm bill without slashing food subsidies for low-income and other people in need.
Neal Smithers—the name has been changed to preserve his privacy—is a regular at the Saturday Crescent City Farmers Market on Carondelet Street in the CBD. He lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area that has low incomes and low access to healthy food. He catches the bus from his home on St. Claude to get to the market and, if he has time, occasionally visits the Uptown and Mid-City markets during the week.
Getting to a Crescent City Farmers Market is worth the crosstown trek for Neal because the market doubles his SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits through a program called Market Match. It gives him extra money to spend on fruits and vegetables. SNAP and Market Match are both funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm bill, a bill that not only provides food assistance to low-income households, but also provides funding to farms that put food on everyone’s tables.
In addition to living in a food desert, Neal also has diabetes. Since he became a Farmers Market regular and began participating in Market Match, he has lost weight and is close to no longer needing metformin, a medicine that regulates his blood sugar. He credits his improved health to the increased amount of fruits and vegetables he’s able to buy, as well as the exercise he gets walking from the bus stop to the market.
Programs like SNAP and Market Match are crucial to Neal’s health and ability to budget for necessities besides food while living in a low-income neighborhood without a car and with more nearby options for unhealthy, empty calories than fresh, nutritious food.
Food insecurity is a condition in which people are unable to access or afford sufficient quantities of healthy, nourishing foods. It’s directly inked to a higher risk of chronic disease.
Poor diet was No. 1 of the 17 leading risk factors for morbidity and mortality in the United States in 2016, according to “The State of US Health,” a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It’s a complicated issue that often involves more than the location of the nearest grocery store and when the next paycheck is coming. Food insecurity is linked to additional social determinants of health, including access to medical care, housing, transportation, and community networks.
Nearly one in four Orleans Parish households is food insecure, and one in five receives SNAP benefits — giving New Orleans some of the worst numbers in Louisiana, according to Feeding America reports. Many of these households have young children in them. The health outcomes are predictable.
In 2017, Louisiana ranked sixth in the nation for adult obesity, fourth for obesity among 10- to-17-year-olds, fourth for adult diabetes, and sixth for hypertension according to the Louisiana State of Obesity report. For people like Neal who are already struggling to make ends meet, trips to the doctor to manage diet-related illnesses are simply not in the budget.
Programs such as SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—a program for eligible children five and younger and for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum and not-breastfeeding—provide supplemental assistance to low-income families, but it’s often not enough.
The average benefit for a SNAP recipient is about $4 per day, but in Louisiana the average cost for just one meal is $3. For one person eating three meals a day with no snacks, that’s a food-budget shortfall of $150 each month. For a family of four it’s $600 per month, and to qualify for the program, these families can’t net a monthly income above $2100.
Families participating in WIC can have higher incomes than those receiving only SNAP benefits, and some families receive benefits from both programs. But unlike SNAP, WIC food packages limit families to purchasing specific items and brands, and the allowance for fruits and vegetables is only about $10 per month.
At the office for Market Umbrella and the Crescent City Farmers Market we get several calls a week from people who need food. Their SNAP benefits have run out. The closest food pantry isn’t open that day. Spending money on food now might mean falling behind on rent or the Entergy bill.
Unfortunately, we aren’t always able to help these people in crisis, but we do operate several programs at Crescent City Farmers Market that incentivize and encourage healthy eating on a budget. Our Market Match and Market+ WIC programs give households extra money to purchase fruits and vegetables, all of them grown within 200 miles of the city, picked fresh, and packed full of nutrients.
The Market Mommas Club gives Medicaid-eligible mothers who are breastfeeding $80 a month to spend on local goods at our markets—an amount roughly equal to what might be spent on infant formula over the same period of time.
Besides bringing more fresh produce into our community’s homes, we’ve also partnered with local schools through our Farm to School program. It connects farmers to school food providers and assists with hands-on gardening education for teachers and students.
We believe our farmers and families should have sovereignty over the foods they grow and consume, and that growing and shopping local are vital to our community’s physical, mental, and economic health.
Our programs at Crescent City Farmers Market are not a cure-all to the systemic economic hardships faced by individual households and farms, but they do provide much-needed support and opportunity in our region. This is why it is critical that Congress renew incentive programs that help in the fight against food insecurity.
Given that Trump tariffs have already burdened American agriculture, a usually reliable part of the Republican base, approval of the bill was expected by the lame-duck Republican majority in the House. But even after signing the bill, the president continues to mutter about defying Congress and using regulatory powers to restrict access to food stamps and other programs that support farmers markets and qualified farms.
Until there is a solution to poverty itself, federal programs like SNAP and WIC are of critical importance. They help make sure that low-income families have one of their basic human needs met: food. People in our community already have too many struggles, and in a city like New Orleans where people come to indulge and imbibe with abandon—and where many residents make their income from food and beverage industries—we shouldn’t have so many people worried about how they’ll get their next meal.
Caryn Blair is an urban planner. Born and raised in New Orleans, she currently serves as Program Manager at Market Umbrella, a local nonprofit working on improving healthy food access through its operations at the Crescent City Farmers Market. She believes we can redesign the built environment to improve quality of life and create more equitable cities.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.