An innovative community development credit union that serves the greater New Orleans area is one of 12 financial institutions to receive federal grant money to help improve the quality of food in their areas.
The 74,000-member ASI Federal Credit Union has received a $3 million grant to help entrepreneurs seeking to bring healthier food to low-income neighborhoods.
These areas are known as “food deserts” and helping to shrink them is a goal of the Healthy Food Finance Initiative, an effort of U.S. Treasury's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
The other institutions to receive money, mostly community development loan funds, are located in West Virginia, Virginia, Georgia, California, Maine, Illinois, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
“The awards being provided to CDFIs through this initiative will enable CDFIs to enhance their financing solutions to deliver healthy food options to food deserts nationwide,” said CDFI Director Donna J. Gambrell. “The 12 awardees this year have an impressive combination of experience in working in underserved areas and the enthusiasm to expand their expertise to improve the quality of life for residents of low-income communities across the country.”
The effort is part of something called the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The HFFI is an interagency initiative involving the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
HFFI represents the federal government's first coordinated step to eliminate food deserts by promoting a wide range of interventions that expand the supply of and demand for nutritious foods, including increasing the distribution of agricultural products; developing and equipping grocery stores; and strengthening producer-to-consumer relationships, the fund said.
ASI CEO Mignhon Tourné observed that the CU has already had a history of making these sorts of loans, and ASI Senior Vice President Sarah Taylor reported that the CU has talks in the works with some area grocers.
“We have already had several conversations with grocers and restaurateurs in the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods of the Ninth Ward who need financing to start or expand their businesses,” she said. “These monies from the CDFI fund will help us make a real impact in those communities, creating new jobs and providing healthy and affordable food alternatives,” Taylor said.
Tourné acknowledged a certain irony that a city like New Orleans, which is famous for having delicious food, would have food deserts, but she made the point that the deserts had existed prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We have parts of our areas we serve that have never had access to sources of simple, plain, wholesome food,” Tourné said. “They didn't have it before Katrina, and they sure don't have it now.”
Tourné cited different reasons the deserts existed. In some cases, people in an area lack the transportation to be able to make the trips to pick up food from wealthier areas that have grocery stores and supermarkets, she explained.
Money to purchase food or launch a grocery store in an area that doesn't have one is almost always a problem as well, she added.
What is generally not a problem, she said, are people not knowing what to do with fresh food, how to cook and prepare it. In some other cities, new grocery stores or other outlets for fresh food have had to overcome residents reservations about it or lack of knowledge about how to cook it.
But, given that was New Orleans, Tourné said, she felt confident people would know what to do with it. “If someone showed up in these areas with fresh tomatoes and okra and gave it to people, I think they would take them home and make gumbo,” she said.
Some of the food related businesses that ASI has already helped fund in depressed New Orleans neighborhoods include the first food cooperative in the city's upper Ninth Ward, an area that had a grocery store prior to Hurricane Katrina but lost it in the storm.
The credit union has also helped fund a restaurant called Faroush that offers Mediterranean cuisine in an emerging commercial area that had long been economically distressed.
Tourné said the CU was willing to work with a relatively wide spectrum of borrowers who might have a piece of the overall food market.
Examples include entrepreneurs who want to get a farmers market started as well as farmers who might need a loan to start a food stand at a farmers market or need to purchase transportation to enable them to bring their produce to the markets.
Grocers could get loans to start grocery stores or to expand their operations, for example to purchase the equipment they would need to be able to store and sell more fresh dairy, meat or seafood. The CU will be willing to help other restaurants as well, Tourné said.
And she added that the scope of restaurants is broad, including everything from juice bars and casual dining places that might feature fresh food from local sources when possible to food trucks.
“We have the food culture here,” Tourné said, “what we need to do is to help people get access to fresh food and we are thrilled to be able to be part of that.”