When neighborhoods lack access to healthy food, it signals not only serious public health challenges, but lagging economic and community development. While improving access to nutritious and fresh foods addresses obstacles to healthy eating, it is only a partial solution for building a vibrant, local economy. How best, then, can we strengthen vulnerable neighborhoods that experience little community development and persistent food insecurity?
In our experience, this requires a holistic approach that addresses the needs of a community in the short- and long-term. Our work in New Orleans, where Broad Community Connections (BCC) and L+M Development Partners (L+M) recently broke ground on the ReFresh Project, is an example of doing just that: addressing multiple community needs at once. The ReFresh Project, a 60,000-square-foot adaptive reuse development, will include a new Whole Foods Market, Liberty’s Kitchen—a nonprofit with the dual purpose of providing culinary and life-skills training for at-risk youth and healthy meals for public schools—and Tulane University’s new Center for Culinary Medicine, a first-of-its kind teaching kitchen for community members, medical students, and practicing medical professionals.
With ReFresh, our aim was not just to promote health by bringing better food options to residents, but to create a transformative project that would engage the community and anchor economic and community development in a historically underserved area of New Orleans. BCC and L+M perceived that the conventional wisdom on ‘food deserts’—communities which lack access to fresh and affordable foods, and with a preponderance of unhealthy food options—was incomplete; simply placing a fresh food retailer in an underserved community alone would not change the community’s health. We wanted to provide educational programming and supportive services, new jobs and economic opportunities, and crucial resources that would help residents live healthier lives over the long-term. To that end, the ReFresh Project is the first development in the nation to house healthy and fresh food retail under the same roof as a broad range of organizations and programs designed to promote positive health outcomes and healthy behaviors.
BCC describes this approach to community health as the Three Ps: proximity, or geographic access to healthy food within a community; price, or the affordability of fresh food, not only in terms of the sticker price, but also in the prevalence of support programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and programming, or a spectrum of educational opportunities and support services—from cooking and nutrition classes, to exercise clubs and urban farming spaces, to developing a community health worker corps, to helping with WIC and SNAP registration, and shopping and budgeting assistance.
The ReFresh project, which includes much-needed office and community space for health education programs that promote the vitality of the surrounding neighborhoods, will ensure that the Three Ps are met. Over time, the project aims to reduce the rates of chronic and diet-related disease in New Orleans, a city that suffers from some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country, and make good on the conviction that the revitalization of a community should begin with the health of its residents.
At BCC and L+M, we believe the ReFresh Project will play a key role in improving the health and vibrancy of some of New Orleans’ most vulnerable neighborhoods. It is a destination that anchors small, local businesses in the broader corridor and complements large public and private investments in the area, including affordable housing. ReFresh is a national model for innovation in community development, public health, economic growth and education that centers on building healthier communities and increasing access to nutritious, delicious food.