Keepin’ it fresh in New Orleans

By Salimah Kassamali

This week’s feature is the second in a four part series on food security. The first part looked at a Canadian perspective on food security, and this week looks at organic farms in New Orleans. Stay tuned for how to reduce and recycle food waste in the next two weeks.

Most urban dwellers in North America assume that we live in a food secure world. Grocery stores carry all the produce and packaged goods that we need, and restaurants and fast food joints provide food when we don’t have time to prepare it. However, there are marginalized populations who do not have access to grocery stores and they must rely on an unhealthy supply of canned, preserved or deep-fried food. 

Seventeen students from the University of Calgary, myself included, participated in the Calgary Serves Food and Justice program in New Orleans during reading week, Feb. 15–22. This program was organized through the Centre for Community-Engaged Learning to provide students with a greater understanding of injustice issues surrounding food security. 

During the week, we were exposed to many social problems underpinning the lack of access to healthy and sustainable food. We had the opportunity to explore innovative education and agriculture solutions that only became viable after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. I am convinced that the challenges and successes of these re-development projects can be used as a model for other major urban centres around the world — including Calgary — to provide access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food for everyone. 

Well known for the Mardi Gras festival, New Orleans is slowly reclaiming its touristic zeal. Many travelers tend to cluster around the French Quarter — an area that shows no signs of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive forces. Venturing outside of the affluent areas of the city, however, I was surprised by the rampant poverty and racial discrimination that beats in the heart of this American metropolis. Many areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, still show signs of destruction and desolation even though the hurricane struck seven years ago. 

Through dialogue and educational meetings, we learned that the poverty and vulnerability of the mostly African American residents were only brought to the surface after Katrina. Thousands of impoverished people were unable to leave the city during the storm and were forced to fend for themselves. 

Today, residents of New Orleans and the state government are attempting to prevent further devastation from another hurricane. During the trip we toured the reconstructed levy that had given way during the storm — a preventable engineering failure and the major cause of the flooding in the region. Bioswales, which help retain storm water runoff and filter out pollutants, have been reconstructed to control overland flooding. There is a growth of newly designed homes, including ones by the Make it Right program led by Brad Pitt. These homes are elevated and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certified, meaning they meet a certain sustainable building design. 

The devastation has also allowed for a burgeoning micro-economy of urban farming. These urban farms are part of a growing universal movement to find solutions to food security issues. In the wake of destruction, New Orleans was the ideal place to start anew. 

Fresh organic produce is expensive and, in most areas of the city, unavailable. Due to a lack of transportation options in impoverished areas, people are forced to depend on corner stores that offer packaged or canned goods with high amounts of preservatives and calories. Touring around the city, many of us recognized a need for healthy and affordable alternatives to the fried fish and chicken Po’ Boys that many locals eat. However, the New Orleans and American community are trying to fulfil the need for healthy food. 

One of the most exciting ventures of the trip was our tour of the kindergarten to grade 8 Samuel J. Green charter school — one of five charter schools founded in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Samuel J. Green school attempts to improve the lifestyle choices and standard of living of students, families and community members by incorporating organic gardening and seasonal cooking into the school curriculum, culture and cafeteria. Located in an area where 98 per cent of the surrounding community was once below the poverty line, the culture of the school needed to be reinvented. The new directors faced the challenge of reinstilling a sense of trust in the neighbourhood. 

Based on Alice Water’s Berkeley design of an edible schoolyard, this charter school was the first of its kind in Louisiana. Kelly Miranda, volunteer and community partnerships coordinator, says gardening and cooking classes are intertwined at the charter school and students have a chance to design recipes based on what is growing.

“Everyone eats breakfast, lunch and a snack, and there is a hope that these cooking classes and gardening classes will increase the likelihood that kids will eat vegetables and other healthy foods. Kids are excited to eat vegetable pizza because they can recognize some of the vegetables they have grown in the garden,” says 

Students have gardening and cooking classes throughout the year and the gardens have also been used for science classes and as a place for reading. Other initiatives include integrated family food nights where the kids have a chance to show their parents what they have learned. Grades 6–8 have a chance to take part in a budding entrepreneurs class where they can make jams and candles to sell at markets. 

With the rehabilitation of this school, the surrounding neighbourhood has changed as well. Miranda sees evidence of more racial diversity and fewer security issues than before as many families are moving near the school. While these improvements are mostly positive, the gentrification of this neighbourhood could be seen as another way of segregating the poor. Land value has gone up in the area, along with rental prices. With this school and other rehabilitation projects like it, the poorest families are sometimes forced to move to more affordable areas of the city. However, these families still have opportunities in these rebuilt communities because charter schools are designed to admit students from all walks of life. 

As students move on from Samuel J. Green school, the directors hope that students will continue to eat healthy foods and further develop an interest in agriculture and entrepreneurial projects. Students in all the neighbourhoods of New Orleans can be employed on organic farms such as Grow Dat Youth Farm or Our School at Blair Groceries. Farms like these are blossoming around New Orleans, post-Katrina. 

Leo Gorman, the co-director and farm manager of Grow Dat, was a high school teacher who had interned at multiple organic farms before moving to New Orleans to facilitate his own project. Like many individuals in this line of work, he is passionate about youth empowerment, community education and sustainable agriculture.

The ultimate vision of the organic farms is to educate several hundred young people to act as the next generation of food leaders and solve food security issues. 

“The core of this program is around developing youth leadership through sustainable agriculture and through the contact between your body, mind, heart and the work of growing, eating, selling and talking about food,” says Gorman. His farm employs a diverse group of students and offers unique farming skills and learning opportunities. 

Similar to charter schools, the organic farms attempt to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic and sense of pride in the youth, as well as exposing them to the idea of nutritious, fresh food. 

“In a growing culture of convenience, at least in the Western world, eating out and nutrient-poor food is getting more common,” says Gorman. “We have cooking classes that tie with what we are growing from the field in simple and delicious recipes and how [the students] can prepare them at home.” 

Gorman is finding that students are more open to trying new things, particularly nutritious, fresh foods. 

“Young people are leaving with a sense of responsibility, of stewardship and of leadership around these issues,” says Gorman.

The education programs on the farms also focus on sustainable agriculture.

“There are some myths out there that conventional agriculture can feed the world. There is a lot of evidence that if not just small scale, a mix of small, medium and large scale agriculture using organic and transitional methods can yield as much food as conventional methods,” says Gorman. 

Conventional methods of agriculture production have led to food contamination, environmental pollution and depletion of natural resources. Excessive use of insecticides and pesticides due to mono-culture agriculture create stronger, more resilient insects and weeds. Grow Dat is one example of the many farms challenging industrial methods and addressing these problems. 

However, Gorman finds that changing agriculture practices is not an easy task. 

“A challenge, I think, is basically trying to do a lot of things at once. I’m trying to create a high and rigorous [education] program and pay attention to the programmatic and curriculum details while also running a farm and fundraising, managing volunteers and developing the infrastructure for the site and organization. Intense multitasking [is required] but we have a great team and we’ve been able to work through this,” says Gorman. 

Our School at Blair Groceries is another urban farm located in the Lower Ninth Ward. Many locals suffer social instability, and this farm was created to specifically target neighbourhood youth and provide a sense of support for the community. 

Yet, many projects face problems of staffing and funding and sometimes those who create these farms do not have the necessary business experience to run them.

After some initial struggles with poor management practices and high staff turnover in 2010, Nat Turner, the director of Our School at Blair Groceries, is attempting to rebuild the business with a few dedicated individuals. 

“Staffing has been a challenge, particularly for the work we do. It’s not only growing food but working with young people at the same time,” says Turner. Turner had problems with workers not getting along and lacking strong teaching skills.

Students are often paid to work on these farms through grants from foundations or the government. However, the youth are not always reliable workers. 

In addition to these challenges, both the Grow Dat and Our School at Blair Groceries urban farm projects are faced with the challenges of competing with cheaper, imported and conventionally-produced agriculture. 

Gorman suggests that a good business practice is to provide “high-quality products above all because at the end of the day when you are growing food, you have to compete with a lot of conventionally grown agriculture that looks very beautiful but might not necessarily taste good. In any group you have to establish yourself and have to fill some sort of niche. The niche that we see here in terms of local vegetable market is that no one is growing high-quality salad mix.”

While Grow Dat and Our School at Blair Groceries are faced with the difficult task of competing with conventionally-grown agriculture, they also compete against other organic farms in the city for clientele and government funding. And while some of these organizations are managing to do well, others are not.

“At the end of the day, the non-profit economic landscape right now is pretty intense because there is limited funding. Financing is always a challenge. We’ve been very fortunate to have support from individual donors, foundations and from Tulane University,” says Gorman. Our School at Blair Groceries, however, is finding government funding unreliable and instead is selling produce to high-end restaurants.

While the success of these organic farms currently depends on the support of larger, more powerful institutions and organizations, I learned that motivated and innovative individuals ultimately define the success of these programs. These programs can be extended to agricultural production, animal farms and meat production. With most urban cities relying on fossil fuel-consuming imports and unsustainable production methods, we must find new approaches to how we feed ourselves. 

Individuals in Calgary have both an opportunity and a responsibility to raise awareness about food justice. Programs like Calgary Serves in New Orleans force us to ask questions about where our food comes from, how it’s grown and how healthy it is. We also need to ask whether all levels of society have equal access to nutritious food. 

At the University of Calgary, the Communal Table Project teaches students basic cooking skills using local, fresh ingredients. Good Food Boxes full of affordable, sustainable and nutritious fruits and vegetables can be purchased on campus rather than shopping at grocery stores. We can choose to grow our own vegetables in community gardens, however, Calgary’s short growing season doesn’t allow for year-long gardens. 

Overall, we can be more aware of what we eat, and choose more local, nutritious and sustainable food. And while most of the Western world is forging ahead with technical advances to increase productivity, we should never forget our simple and timeless connection to our food and land. 

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