Hungry at the Banquet: JSRI Reports Food Insecurity in Louisiana

The Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) on Dec. 13 issued a new report on the realities of hunger and food deserts in Louisiana. Hungry at the Banquet: Food Insecurity in Louisiana 2018 reports that, in a state that celebrates rich and varied food traditions that are famous worldwide, there are many people without enough to eat. Researchers found that Louisiana has the second highest rate of food insecurity in the United States.

Authored by Kathleen J. Fitzgerald, Ph.D., the report focuses on the scope of food insecurity, its causes and its cures, the realities of food deserts, and the nature of food justice. In his introduction to the report, JSRI Executive Director Fred Kammer, SJ, emphasized: “Dr. Fitzgerald presents strategies for addressing food insecurity as part of the demands upon all of us — citizens and policymakers — to end the scourge of hunger in the midst of plenty in Louisiana.”  

Key Findings of Hungry at the Banquet: Food Insecurity in Louisiana 2018

Louisiana has the second highest rate of food insecurity in the nation and it is rising faster than in the rest of the country.

  • Despite being a foodie destination, Louisiana suffers from a food gap, which is the failure of the market economy to serve the basic human needs of those who are the most impoverished.
  • In Louisiana, 783,400 people, 258,630 of whom are children, struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America. One in six children—17.9 percent—live in households without consistent access to adequate food.
  • Forty-six of the 64 parishes in Louisiana have food insecurity rates of 15% or higher, and some as high as 34.4%. The national average in 2017 was 11.8%.
  • Food insecurity rates are higher in small towns and rural areas than in cities in Louisiana, as they are nationally.

Louisiana is replete with food deserts, places with a dearth of healthy and affordable food options, such as full-service grocery stores and/or farmers’ markets within a convenient travel distance.

  • Research links food deserts to poor health; and Louisiana is one of the least healthy states, with one of the highest rates of adult obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.
  • Nationwide, the prevalence of food deserts increases in low-income ZIP codes and in racial minority communities. Food deserts are disproportionately found in the American South, including Louisiana.
  • Louisiana’s poverty and racial demographics make it ripe for the prevalence of food deserts and much of the state qualifies as such. 
  • Two metropolitan areas—New Orleans-Metairie and Baton Rouge—land in the top ten Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the nation struggling with food insecurity. 

Food insecurity in Louisiana, and around the nation, is being addressed, albeit incompletely, by three federal programs: SNAP, WIC, and the National School Lunch Program, as well as some local initiatives.  

  • One in four Louisiana families rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to meet their monthly food needs; two-thirds of these residents are children.
  • Thousands of food-insecure Louisiana residents are not eligible for the SNAP program and, for those who are, more than 90% of benefits are used by the third week of the month.
  • Food banks, including mobile food pantries, are helping meet the needs of Louisiana’s food-insecure population in some, but not all, areas of the state.
  • Food activism came to New Orleans in the post-Katrina era, in the form of urban farms and farmers’ markets; yet the white, middle-class food movement has largely failed to connect with the low-income communities of color facing the highest rates of food insecurity.

A food justice movement emphasizes equal access to food, ending structural inequalities to food access, specifically those related to race and racism, and an emphasis on a wider distribution of environmental benefits.

  • The right to food tops the list of specific human rights in Catholic social teaching because hunger is a fundamental assault on human life itself.
  • It is impossible to address food justice separately from economic and racial justice.
  • The State of Louisiana is called on to make food policy a higher priority, including offering incentives for grocery stores to open in underserved communities.

The report Hungry at the Banquet 2018 also discusses the work of Second Harvest of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana and Sankofa Mobile Market in New Orleans. 

Natalie Jayroe, President and CEO of Second Harvest said, “While we will always be here to respond to the need of any South Louisianan facing hunger — whether it is a child going to school hungry, an older person choosing between food and medicine, an oil and gas worker laid off from their job, or an entire community coping with a natural disaster — we are also increasingly focused on strategies that make a greater long-term impact, such as our oncology clinic pantry at University Medical Center and SNAP education and outreach efforts.”

In her conclusion to the report, Dr. Fitzgerald commented, “Addressing food insecurity in Louisiana must be understood as a social justice issue of the highest priority, requiring attention from all levels of government, the business community, local activists, and the faith community."

The report was made possible by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It continues the work of JSRI on hunger in Louisiana and the Gulf South and its February 2017 report SNAP Keeps Louisiana Strong and Healthy during Difficult Times.

Read the full report.

JSRI is a collaboration between the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and Loyola University New Orleans. Based at the university, JSRI seeks to educate and advocate on issues of race, poverty and migration.

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