Rebuilding itself, New Orleans is reconstructing food community
The following post is by Stu Shafer, a professor of sociology at Johnson County Community College in Kansas and a farmer-member of the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, whose newsletter this post first appeared in. He visited various food projects while in New Orleans earlier this month for a conference that included the annual meetings of Agriculture, Food and Human Values and the Association for the Study of Food and Society.
Joe Sherman grows tomatoes in the bathtub he “grew up in.” That’s in the backyard of the house his dad built, the house he lives in and is still rebuilding, in a family neighborhood that is “slowly coming back” after 10 feet of Hurricane Katrina floodwater nearly wiped it out. One reason Joe is growing his tomatoes in a bathtub and peppers and eggplant in other containers is the small size of his backyard. But another reason is a concern with the condition of the soil, which was always somewhat contaminated with urban pollutants like lead but now has an additional burden of salt from the flood. Katrina’s surge carried brackish water from Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf outlet of the Mississippi into most of the city.
Time in New Orleans is now reckoned in relation to Katrina, and the organization that is helping Joe with his garden — New Orleans Food & Farm Network (NOFFN) — had projects in his neighborhood before Katrina as well as after Katrina. NOFFN was responding to a request from the Hollygrove neighborhood Joe lives in for help with backyard gardens before Katrina, and has intensified those efforts now. The network is also working to develop a seven-day-a-week green grocery with a training farm in a former nursery in the neighborhood that was destroyed by the hurricane and is not coming back.
This is all part of NOFFN’s mission, succinctly stated in its belief that “everyone should have access to fresh, healthy, and sustainably produced food for the long-term health of our environment, economy, and communities.” The Hollygrove project is just one facet of the group's work, much of which involves some combination of education and support for both growing and preparing healthy, locally grown produce.
Food Talk Project
One of its most heart-warming and significant programs was the Food Talk Project, in which local students were organized to interview their family and neighbors about food, including gathering traditional recipes. The Food Talk Project shows exactly where NOFFN’s strengths lie: in close integration with the local community, preserving and strengthening traditional food skills while building and rebuilding a viable, sustainable local food system.
For the Food Talk Project, students from an Algiers neighborhood charter high school became food-focused oral historians. They interviewed local residents with several goals, including learning about specific local food cultural traditions and identifying people who already grew healthy food. Community members became valuable resources and were organized and mobilized to serve as mentors to other community members who wanted to develop and expand their knowledge and skills. After some training in interview methods, the students visited homes and talked with their neighbors about their relationships with food, how it was traditionally grown and prepared. The stories and recipes they gathered are being compiled and used to produce recipe cards (with stories from the interviews on the other side) as well as a collection of posters, which were on display at the conference I attended.
The whole thing was moving and inspiring. Although the urban farm tour did not show a tremendously productive food system already developed, you have to keep in mind that the rebuilding after Katrina will take a long, long, time. These are good people building really good things for each other and their community, including community gardens, food coops, and “micro farms” to provide healthy food for all.
The Kids' Cafe
The Kids’ Cafe was one of the community garden projects that was wiped out by the flood. Now, a Latino Farmers Cooperative has taken on the revitalization of the garden, along with a number of other spots, utilizing the skills of the Latino immigrant community.
Another really cool project that Food Talk and other NOFFN efforts have contributed to is mapping the city in terms of access to food. This is a great way to identify both sources of local food as well as “food deserts,” areas where there is no access to food within walking distance. In New Orleans, only 6 percent of the population lives within walking distance of a grocery.
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