New Orleans, La.

    • January 11, 2010

When Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury along the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Americans watched in horror as the levees protecting New Orleans gave way and devastating floodwaters rushed in. Hundreds of people died; entire neighborhoods were submerged. More than four years later, The Big Easy is still recovering—minus nearly 200,000 residents who evacuated and never returned.

But here’s one of the few silver linings: Katrina has provided New Orleans a rare opportunity for a civic “do-over” in a city that has long struggled with obesity. With federal funds finally in hand for rebuilding New Orleans’s infrastructure, a partnership of local officials and organizations wants to make healthy eating and active living as high a priority for capital improvements as improved flood protection and reopened schools.

“Post-Katrina, we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of citizen involvement at every level, from neighborhood associations to the city council,” said project director Kathryn M. Parker-Karst. “There’s a great urge to build back New Orleans better than before.”

For now, with even fewer options for physical activity or places to purchase fresh, healthy foods, the city’s predominantly African-American population remains at significant risk for obesity. Many neighborhoods have limited opportunities for walking or bicycling because hundreds of miles of streets damaged by Katrina have not been repaired. In a city with a historically high level of poverty, one-third of households do not own cars and are effectively cut off from many of the services and amenities that have been restored, from grocery stores to youth sports leagues.

Given the famously caloric eating habits in New Orleans, the result is an almost 40 percent obesity rate among African-Americans.

Yet as Parker-Karst noted, new winds are blowing. Neighborhood associations are invigorated. One such group, the KidsWalk Coalition, comprises nonprofit organizations and municipal agencies dedicated to reducing childhood obesity by giving low-income children opportunities for play, exercise and sports. With the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University leading, the coalition has collaborated successfully on such projects as planning an extensive network of bicycle lanes and establishing a financial incentive program for grocery stores to sell healthy food in underserved neighborhoods.

The KidsWalk Coalition will use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to guide public opinion and influence public policy to ensure that New Orleans is rebuilt as a much healthier city. The coalition sees multiple prospects in new policies and environmental changes.

The Lafitte Corridor Greenway, a three-mile urban trail linking neighborhoods from Treme to Lakeview, will dramatically improve residents’ ability to be physically active. Looking ahead, new schools can be constructed with better access to parks and other recreation facilities. Safe spaces for walking and bicycling can be created as streets are repaired or replaced.

“We’ll know we’re making a difference when school districts are promoting walking or cycling to school as a safe option,” Parker-Karst said.

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