Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beyond Brookline: Connecting around the table in New Orleans

Impressively hot, humid weather can make the summer in New Orleans a painfully slow-moving season. The peaches, tomatoes, okra, blueberries, and mustard greens aren’t complaining, though.

I’m here for summer research, mapping food assets in and around the city, and mostly getting an earful. A stranger spent fifteen minutes at a roadside produce stand telling me how to cook okra right. Fishermen at the Westwego market explained that some of their best customers are people who relocated after Katrina and return to their new homes with ice chests of Gulf seafood. With a long subtropical growing season and food traditions from Cajun to Creole to Vietnamese, New Orleans knows food. Still, healthy and affordable groceries are miles from many neighborhoods. As in most US cities, corner stores here stock a lot of beer and a lot of packaged snack food.

I spent an afternoon in June at a lively “food roundtable” conversation among a group of about 30 rural and urban growers, educators, chefs, students, policy workers and community members in the area. The questions explored, broadly, were: How do we connect within the food system? How can we strengthen these connections and effect change?

At Hollygrove Market & Farm in northwest New Orleans, the local-produce CSA boxes overflow. Hollygrove’s setup allows patrons to choose either a generous prix-fixe box of produce or per-pound and per-piece fruits and vegetables. Unlike a typical CSA arrangement, however, which generally functions between individuals and a single farm, HM&F allows customers to support a network of farmers and producers in the region, while the farm space leads community education and outreach through demonstration gardens and plots for interested neighborhood gardeners.

Market manager Alyssa makes weekly produce runs to farms, packing impressive amounts of melons and mustard greens (this week) into the market’s only van, and farmers who sell to other markets in the city can drop off at their convenience. Close relationships with farmers allow Alyssa to move effectively between consumers, chefs, and growers, even making planting recommendations and communicating to growers, for instance, marketgoers’ desire to see more natural and organic produce – no easy feat in a state where agriculture research is heavily funded by the same companies that make synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. On the market side, too, Alyssa’s firsthand knowledge of these farms means she can vouch for growing practices. Last Friday I volunteered doing market setup, and as I bagged Cajun Grain rice (a blend of wild red and jasmine rices, grown in Kinder, LA), farmers delivered herbs and mushrooms, chefs stopped in for boxes of greens and figs, and community members watered their basil starts.

The central sticking point of much food work – that is, that ethically-produced local and/or organic food remains inaccessible for poor communities – is certainly present at Hollygrove, too. Much of the surrounding neighborhood shops for groceries at Walmart, a recent survey showed, despite the cross-town commute and HM&F’s discounts on CSA boxes for neighbors. By physically rooting down in the local community, though, Hollygrove Market & Farm is dedicated to becoming an institution, supporting local and ethical growing while facilitating a connection to good seasonal eating for all.

The food roundtable’s initial task was to define roles within the food system. Who plays a part, and how? Backyard gardeners? Teachers? Grocery chain managers? Chicken farmers? Being a very temporary resident, I mostly observed. Still, the discussion reminded me of my capacities as student, gardener, and cook. The people in that room represented various ways to enter the food system. For many of us, such interactions involve growing a few of our own vegetables, supporting regional growers, getting excited about eating seasonally. In New Orleans, and anywhere, these choices can be as much economic and political as they can be tasty and joyful.
Isabel Neal is a student at Pitzer College.
She will be in New Orleans until August researching the regional food system.