Strengthening Communities: Empowering Food Pantries in Rural Louisiana

Catherine Losavio, Holston, Denise, Freightman, Jamila, Seals, Katherine

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Ruthie Losavio, Katherine Seals, Jamila Freightman and Denise Holston

Food insecurity, poverty and obesity rates in rural parishes are often above the national and state averages. This means that rural residents face significant challenges accessing nutritious foods, which puts them at higher risk for preventable obesity-related conditions like heart disease, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.

While local food pantries work hard to provide much-needed services in rural Louisiana, their communities' needs often outpace their capacities and resources. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened supply chain and food access issues contributing to an influx of clients at food pantries across the state. To address these challenges, the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities team deployed a variety of strategies in six rural parishes: Assumption, East Carroll, Madison, Morehouse, St. Helena and Tensas.

Since 2018, the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities team has worked with charitable food sites like food pantries to make healthy foods more accessible to Louisiana residents experiencing food insecurity. The team assessed 19 charitable food sites across the six parishes and identified refrigeration, storage and food supply as pantries' greatest needs for providing a sufficient source of healthy food to their clients. Guided by these results, the team used funding from the CDC High Obesity Program (HOP) to purchase cooling and storage equipment like refrigerators, freezers and shelving for 13 charitable food sites, which increased pantries’ capacities and supported the adoption of nutrition policies and donation guidelines.* The customizable policies and guidelines were developed based on national nutrition standards, allowing pantries to adopt policies that were realistic to implement and appropriate for their clients. As a result of these interventions, 13 rural food pantries are now equipped to serve a higher volume of healthier foods to 7,580 monthly clients.

To help address food supply needs, in four of the six parishes the team also conducted a yearlong pilot program beginning March 2022 for Grow a Row to Share, a program that helps home gardeners and local farmers connect with nearby charitable food sites to donate fresh produce. Over the course of six months, eight Grow a Row to Share pilot sites distributed 1,103 servings of fresh produce, which is enough to feed more than 275 people. After the successful yearlong pilot, Grow a Row to Share launched statewide in March 2023.

Amid these efforts, the Healthy Communities team recognized a broader need to strengthen resource-sharing networks among Louisiana's food pantries and their clients. In response, the team hosted the first biennial Louisiana Charitable Food Summit on May 2, 2023. The inaugural event hosted nearly 150 attendees and featured sessions on common challenges and innovative solutions in the charitable food system, including online ordering systems, client choice models, community gardens and managing burnout. To maintain momentum from the summit, the team began hosting quarterly charitable food system networking calls to foster collaboration and resource sharing within Louisiana’s charitable food system.

“We know that Louisiana’s charitable food sites face many challenges both big and small. By continuing to engage stakeholders across the state, we hope to help address some of their larger-scale challenges,” said Makenzie Miller, local food systems specialist with the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities team. “Our ultimate goal is to strengthen the entire charitable food system to better serve the many individuals and families that rely on these services in Louisiana.”

One summit attendee, Randy Williams, director of the Robinson-Williams Restoration of Hope Community Center in Bastrop, has even transformed his center into a rural food hub with help from LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities and 4-H agents in northeastern Louisiana. In addition to being a community center, the site also serves as a food pantry, community garden, Grow a Row to Share site and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) authorized farmers market in a community with limited food access.

“People have a great distance to go to get fresh fruits and vegetables, and sometimes they can’t get that transportation there. By being right here in the community, families can just walk across the street or, in some cases … we’ll even deliver the food to them,” Williams said.

The Healthy Communities team’s efforts focus on both short-term and long-term solutions to food insecurity in Louisiana. While continuing to address immediate local needs like cooling and storage, the Healthy Communities team offers ongoing support for improvements to Louisiana’s charitable food policies and systems through the biennial Louisiana Charitable Food Summit, quarterly networking calls and Grow a Row to Share. The team hopes to continue empowering Louisiana’s charitable food system so that residents facing food insecurity have access to a strong, resilient network of support.

For more information about LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities, visit

*During the COVID-19 pandemic, equipment was purchased for three sites without the nutrition policy requirement to help meet dire food access needs.

Ruthie Losavio is a communications coordinator for the AgCenter Healthy Communities program. Katherine Seals is the evaluation coordinator, and Jamila Freightman is the program manager for the CDC High Obesity Program. Denise Holston is an associate professor in the AgCenter School of Food and Nutrition Sciences.

This article appears in the winter 2024 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.

Two women dig in a raised-bed vegetable garden.

LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities agent Jocinda Jackson-Jones and LSU AgCenter 4-H agent Denise Guyewski harvest from the community garden at food pantry and Grow a Row to Share site, Robinson-Williams Community Center in Bastrop, Louisiana. Photo provided by Cecilia Stevens

A person reaches into a refrigerator.

A woman loads a grocery basket at Lena’s Closet Food Pantry in St. Helena Parish. Lena’s Closet, a client-choice pantry, is the first parish-wide school food pantry in the state and features nutrition and food safety guidelines thanks to the help of LSU AgCenter nutrition agent Marquetta Anderson. Photo by Ruthie Losavio

3/11/2024 7:13:46 PM
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