Where we live shapes daily life, habits, and health – ask anyone in New Orleans who’s tried to walk on broken sidewalks or buy fresh produce in a neighborhood that lacks a full-service grocery store.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, businesses shut down, roads were in shambles, parks were unsafe. The opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity were wiped out. But in the nine years since, the Tulane Prevention Research Center (PRC) has been working with policymakers, community organizers, researchers, health advocates, and residents to strategically plan and rebuild New Orleans as a healthier city.
“We at the Prevention Research Center are sincerely committed to the health and wellbeing of the residents of New Orleans,” said PRC Director Carolyn Johnson, PhD, FAAHB. “We are gratified that the center has been funded by the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention for another five years so that our work may continue.”
In low-income, minority communities in Louisiana, many people do not live near large grocery stores which offer greater varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables than their smaller counterparts, like corner stores. New Orleans has one supermarket for every 11,800 residents, while the national ratio is one to 8,500. In addition to a lack of grocery stores, many of these neighborhoods are overwhelmed by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, selling mostly low-nutritional high-caloric foods and snacks. Katrina only made this disparity worse.
Research from the Tulane PRC has successfully documented the disparity in healthy food access. In a study published in 2012, the Tulane PRC found that higher quality food environments decrease the risk of obesity and overweight for people living in southeast Louisiana. Equipped with these data and more, the PRC has worked with local leaders to set up evidence-based policies and programs, like the $14 million Fresh Food Retailer Initiative that incentivizes food stores to operate in areas with proven records of lacking healthy food access.
At the APHA Annual Meeting, the PRC will present its latest research looking at the long-term effects of Katrina on food access. The presentations are part of a panel developed by PRC staff called “New Orleans Foodography: Place-based food access issues in the tenth year after Katrina.” Prior research by the Tulane PRC found that disparities worsened directly after Katrina but improved by 2007, though not to pre-storm levels. The PRC will show that by 2013 food access has now returned to pre-storm levels.
Similarly, the PRC will give results from a study examining changes in neighborhood residents’ food purchases after the opening of five new supermarkets in New Orleans between 2011 and 2013. The PRC found that residents within two kilometers of a new store were more likely to have purchased fresh fruits and vegetables from a supermarket within the past week than two years earlier when that supermarket was not open yet.
Rebuilding the city’s streets and sidewalks to promote safer, healthier transportation and recreation options has been a massive undertaking – one that is still underway as more bike lanes are striped and sidewalks and crosswalks are repaired.
In 2007 the PRC created the Partnership for an Active Community Environment (PACE) and, in partnership with the City of New Orleans and neighborhood residents, installed a walking path on the neutral ground of St. Roch Avenue. Afterward, researchers found that the proportion of people being physically active increased throughout the
entire neighborhood around the walking path. Since then, the city has installed walking paths on several other neutral grounds.
Additional findings from this project on the importance of social support will be presented at another APHA panel. The panel will feature additional work from the PRC’s KidsWalk Coalition project. This diverse coalition worked to establish public policies and infrastructure changes focused on safe
biking and walking for children and people with disabilities.
–Naomi King Englar
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