Annual food store surveys chart city's food landscape

Research expanded from previous years

By Naomi King, Tulane Prevention Research Center

A thorough survey of New Orleans' food stores is under way this fall, as the Tulane Prevention Research Center conducts its annual food retail mapping and in-store survey project.

While the study of food deserts has appeared in the national spotlight, the PRC's work aims to look at the entire food landscape, not just what is lacking.
Since 2004, the PRC at Tulane University has sent trained research assistants throughout New Orleans to update a citywide list of food stores. In some of those stores, more than 160 this year, teams will also do in-store surveys to assess the availability of key foods.

This information is used in various PRC studies, such as tracking how changes in food-assistance programs affect what stores offer, or where new stores are most needed. This year's data will also be used with a citywide phone survey as a starting point to evaluate the impact of the city's new Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. This $14-million program gives financial assistance to stores that will expand their retail offerings to include fresh produce as well as to new stores that locate in neighborhoods that have historically lacked access to fresh, healthy foods.

"The annual food store surveying and mapping is a major component of the Tulane PRC's core research and is the only in-depth data that has tracked changes in New Orleans' retail-food environment since before Hurricane Katrina," said Dr. Carolyn Johnson, Tulane PRC director.

Scouring the streets and isles in local grocery stores to create a picture of New Orleans' food options is a revealing exercise for student and community workers.

"It's interesting to see what's out there," said Jewel Barnes, a community outreach assistant on the project for her second year. Barnes began helping conduct community-based research in 2008 after learning about the Prevention Research Center through her church. "The people really need more stores and stores with fresh fruits and vegetables. … [But] it's encouraging because you hope the stores will change."

For Elizabeth Egelski, a nutrition and community health student at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, her participation in the surveys and mapping has also helped her understand how field research is performed, as well as reinforce the importance of such research.

"People are really exposed to a lot of foods that aren't healthy for them," Egelski said. "Our environment affects us, and it's subtle."

This year's food store mapping will not only categorize all the city's stores into types, such as corner store or supermarket; it will also look at the store exteriors, such as bars on windows, sidewalk conditions, posted advertising. Neighborhood characteristics will also be surveyed for what researchers call "social markers." These factors include graffiti and no-loitering signs.

Also new this year, the in-store surveys will look at what foods are sold at or near checkout registers, what food advertisements are posted inside, and what types of prepared foods are offered.

"We're looking at the entire food environment to see what foods dominate, in addition to what is lacking," Johnson said. "Building more grocery stores may help alleviate New Orleans' food disparities, but there should also be an emphasis on these stores selling fresh, healthy produce."

Topics:   food environment , community health , diet , nutrition , policy , obesity , childhood obesity

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