This past Saturday (10/20/2012), the Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development (CSED) and partners (NOFFN included) called attention to the “food desert” in the Lower 9th Ward with a “pop up” o
utdoor grocery. Organizers set up grocery store aisles in the parking lot of All Souls Church and gave residents the opportunity to buy food in their own community, something that residents have not been able to do for the last 7 years. Jenga Mwendo, CSED Food Security Coordinator, points out that the Lower 9th Ward has had food access problem for 20 years, with no full-service grocery (that would have lower prices than convenience stores) and food availability, if any, of low-quality. Beyond raising awareness of this ignored food desert, the event’s goal was to raise money for the development of a mobile grocery store, typically a bus that drives throughout low-income neighborhoods providing fresh produce and other necessities.
Nat Turner, Director of Our School at Blair Grocery, who was featured on recent PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program (along with yours truly, Master Gardener Debra Surtain, Kevin Brown from Trinity Christian Community, community grower Henry Marshall, and USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan) is also working on addressing the food desert in the Lower 9th, a problem that is compounded by other structural obstacles, particularly in inadequate education and underemployment, unlevel and harsh playing field for many. Turner’s work over the past 4-5 years has been to find a way to chip away at the continued marginalization of certain groups of people in this city. To that end, OSBG employs local folks to produce compost and produce (at sites both in the Lower 9th and in nearby Chalmette) that is sold to restaurants and other markets.OSBG also operate as the Gulf Coast Growing Power Regional Outreach Training Center.
Together, Turner and Mwendo are grappling with the systemic inequality that leads to food deserts. They are doing this using different models and strategies much like other groups in New Orleans – for example, the Crescent City Farmers Market, Hollygrove Market & Farm, Good Food NOLA, Sankofa Farmers Market, NOLA Green Roots, Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, Grow Dat Youth Farm, Jack & Jakes, New Orleans Fruit Tree Project, and the Food Policy Advisory Committee. Some are market-oriented projects; others focus on alleviating hunger or on education; and some work on changing policies to increase both food access and the local sourcing of food. These projects are creating alternatives that not only provide food, but also help strengthen neighborhood economies, provide employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for residents, and offer innovative ways to utilize vacant space.
The developing urban farming and food center, Growing Local NOLA – a partnership between the Recirculating Farms Coalition, New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and NOFFN – is another important piece of the food infrastructure in New Orleans. Serving as a hub for research, education, training, and community interaction on growing, marketing, and preparing healthy food, Growing Local NOLA will serve as a catalyst for personal and community farms and local food. It will help NOFFN scale up existing projects and incubate new neighborhood-led projects and the regional food economy by working at all scales, from backyards, to city lots, to a network of commercial farms, with a goal of achieving food justice.
NOFFN sees food as an organizing tool for society; urban and regional farming and markets can be important employment and wealth creators for Greater New Orleans. For example, a 2008 study from Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) estimated that a 20% shift of retail food spending in Detroit redirected to locally grown foods would create 5,000 jobs and increase local output by half a billion dollars. A similar shift in the five surrounding counties of Detroit would create 35,000 jobs. To be sure, there is great economic potential around food projects. It also is a means to address access to fresh, healthy, affordable local food, one of the most critical, and unmet, needs that New Orleans currently faces. We envision a City where everyone has access to fresh, healthy foods. One way to get there is by increasing the amount of food grown right here within our neighborhoods. We offer our Potential Projects Form for folks to give us notice of their ideas and how they might be assisted by us.
Growing Local NOLA will help us make this vision a reality and fits squarely into NOFFN’s Farm This Now! initiative that is intended to help New Orleanians develop a complete local food system by putting people back to work making stuff we all need – food. Farm This Now! is working to overcome the four main obstacles in establishing a farm: LAND to farm on; TRAINING and MENTORING to become better at growing; seed FUNDING to develop the farm and begin growing; and establishing MARKETS for what is grown.
Through a Land Acquisition Handbook, New & Beginning Urban Farmers Training Program (production & management strategies; business management & decision-support strategies; marketing strategies; legal matters relative to farming), Farm Internship Program, New Farm Funding resources, and a Market Guide for new farmers (product lists; pricing/marketing; best handling & food safety practices; growing, harvesting, cleaning, packaging, storage & shelf life; transportation & food hubs; product liability insurance; capital funding sources), coupled with support and stewardship offered by NOFFN and partners, we will be able to incubate new and innovative projects throughout the Greater New Orleans region. Recently, we partnered with the New Orleans Habitat for Humanity to offer empty lots for lease and sale so that New Orleanians can farm this now.
Food justice involves local people from seed to sale. It is education, awareness, and outreach coupled with action – to help create viable alternatives.
Farm This Now! and Growing Local NOLA, along with the diverse projects on the ground and in the planning stage, are revitalizing our community and rebuilding the local economy. The future looks bright.