The influence of Hurricane Katrina on disparities in food access in New Orleans

Researchers suggest Hurricane Katrina can add another negative outcome to its destructive impact on the people of New Orleans: the worsening of existing disparities in neighborhood food access.

Access to healthy food is essential for health promotion efforts, and yet disparities in retail food access exist throughout the country. Virtually no studies have examined how these disparities change over time and if particular events, such as a natural disaster, have an impact on neighborhood food access.

A recent study published by Diego Rose and colleagues at the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at Tulane University indicates that disparities in neighborhood access to supermarkets in New Orleans worsened after Hurricane Katrina hit in fall 2005. Though some improvements to access have been made since 2007, disparities in neighborhood food access in 2009 were the same as pre-storm levels.

Rose and colleagues examined neighborhood access to supermarkets in New Orleans during three time periods, before Hurricane Katrina (2004-2005), in 2007 and in 2009. All 175 residential census tracks in New Orleans were studied. Because residents might shop beyond the borders of their census tracts, neighborhoods were defined by an area that was 1.2 miles in all directions (along the network of streets) from the center point of each tract. Researchers identified supermarkets using a directory and went into the field to verify a store's existence before geo-coding it. Neighborhoods were defined as predominantly African American if 80 percent or more of the tract population was identified as black using data from the U.S. Census and the Environmental Systems Research Institute.

Researchers determined that disparities in neighborhood access existed before Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, in 2007, supermarket access declined for all census tract neighborhoods, but was especially limited for African-American tracts, which were 71 percent less likely than other tracts to have access to an additional supermarket. Access improved slightly in 2009, but was not any better than pre-Katrina disparity levels, in which African-American tracts were 40 percent less likely than other tracts to have an additional supermarket.

"Disparities in neighborhood food access in New Orleans were a major public health problem before Hurricane Katrina and are still negatively impacting the city today," Rose said. "It is critical that local policy makers view increasing healthy food retail access as a priority for promoting health and community development."

The New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee (FPAC) – a group sanctioned by City Council to study healthy food access – developed a set of recommendations for improving access to fresh, healthy food in 2008.

"It was exciting to see one of FPAC's recommendations, the development of a Fresh Food Retail Incentive Program, be approved by the City of New Orleans in 2009," said Rose. "While still in the development stages, this program could go a long way for reducing disparities in healthy food access by providing low-interest and forgivable loans to retailers who commit to improving fresh food access."

Tulane PRC researchers have just finished counting and geo-coding supermarkets for the 2010 estimate. Data collection will proceed on a yearly basis so researchers can continue to assess changes in the food environment in New Orleans over time.

Read the full article in the American Journal of Public Health

Topics:   diet , nutrition , obesity , food access , food environment , food desert , community health , fpac

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