Cecilia Stevens and Ruthie Losavio
Food access and food insecurity are old problems getting new solutions in Morehouse Parish thanks to a partnership between the LSU AgCenter and the Robinson/Williams Restoration of Hope Community Center (RWROHCC). The community center is in a low-income neighborhood with limited food access. There are negative health consequences associated with low access to fresh produce. Morehouse Parish ranks 62nd out of 64 parishes in overall health outcomes — 43% of the parish’s residents are obese, 14% have diabetes, 28% are food insecure and 15% have limited access to healthy food. The partnership is a model for food system policy, systems and environmental changes in other rural parishes.
The LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities program administers a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention High Obesity Program grant in six parishes, including Morehouse. The grant supports food system initiatives at RWROHCC that aim to improve health outcomes in the parish.
The partnership began in November 2020 when the AgCenter helped the center apply to become a food pantry through the regional food bank. The food pantry has grown to serve more than 90 families per month. In spring 2021, RWROHCC received an LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities/Farm Fresh Meals for Louisiana miniature grant, which provided training on cooking with local produce and supplied cooling equipment to increase the site’s food storage capacity. An average of 15 students per week taste test vegetables and enjoy healthy after-school snacks due to this intervention. A community garden was also built that spring and provides donations to food pantry clients.
With the new knowledge, status, garden and equipment, the center enrolled in the AgCenter’s Grow a Row to Share program this spring as both a garden and food distribution site. The program provided training on safely harvesting and distributing produce. Now, the community center has the tools and infrastructure needed to function as a mini food system within the community. From May to July 2022, the center distributed 295 servings of fresh produce and had a produce booth at the July farmers market.
The possibilities do not end there. The combination of community center, food pantry and garden provide unique opportunities for local youth. Denise Guyewski, 4-H associate extension agent for Morehouse Parish, designed and built the garden with assistance from the center’s director Randy Williams and Morehouse Healthy Communities Coalition members. Local 4-H members help maintain the garden and are critical to its sustainability.
“The community garden offers 4-H members the opportunity to participate in activities that positively impact their community. The members put their knowledge to use by planting, maintaining, harvesting and donating produce to the RWROHCC food pantry. They get to see firsthand how their hard work pays off for the community,” said Guyewski. Youth participating in summer and after-school programs at the center are looking forward to cooking with ingredients grown in the garden.
With these successes in place, the group turned to another piece of the food access puzzle: economic development. The newly formed Morehouse Food Systems Workgroup identified an opportunity to launch a monthly farmers market at RWROHCC. In July, the center began hosting the Second Saturday Farmers Market as an outlet for community members to sell fresh produce, canned goods, crafts and other homemade products such as baked goods. The center is also applying to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to make it easier for families with limited income to shop. Extra produce from the community garden will also be sold at the market and reinvested into the program. This will have an immediate impact on the 90 SNAP-eligible families who receive food pantry boxes on the day of the farmers market and are built-in customers for that day’s market.
“The garden will support the farmers market, which will allow people in the community to purchase fresh vegetables that are grown locally,” said Williams. “Hopefully, this will encourage our clients to adopt a garden box and sell produce here at the market, which will offer another source of income to our community.”
The collaborative nature of the center’s community garden and food pantry can be a model for others seeking local solutions to food access issues.
“We’re showing our community and other communities like ours that policy, systems and environmental changes can help communities gain access to fresh produce,” said Jocinda Jackson-Jones, Morehouse Parish Healthy Communities agent.
Cecilia Stevens is the northeast local food systems coordinator for LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities based at the Scott Research and Extension Center. Ruthie Losavio is the communications coordinator for LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities in Baton Rouge.
This article appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.
Robinson/Williams Restoration of Hope Community Center’s director Randy Williams and Morehouse Parish Healthy Communities agent Jocinda Jackson show off the Grow a Row to Share partner sign in the center’s garden. Photo by Cecilia Stevens
The Robinson/Williams Restoration of Hope Community Center’s garden was installed in the fall of 2021. Photo by Cecilia Stevens