Could you tell me a little about the food in New Orleans today? Can you even get local foods in the city?

March 2006

Dear Laura,
Ever since the hurricanes blew through New Orleans, there have been a lot of stories in my local newspaper about the restaurants of the city that are rebuilding or trying to reopen. Could you tell me a little about the food in New Orleans today? Can you even get local foods in the city?

This is a hefty question. Of course we have to wonder: "What does a large scale natural disaster do to a local food system?" Taking it one step further, I wonder in response to your question: "What did Hurricanes Katrina and Rita do to people's perceptions of their local food system?"

Just pondering this question had me really intrigued and the last thing that I wanted to do in this piece was to make a guess or rely on secondhand knowledge from newspaper articles. Because Farm Aid responded immediately to this disaster by getting in touch with food and farm organizations in both rural and urban areas, I knew exactly who to take these questions to. Over the course of several advocate's trainings that Farm Aid organized (or sponsored) this past fall and winter, I have had the pleasure of working with Anne Baker, the Vice President of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN) - the perfect person to answer our questions.

Anne managed a certified organic farm in New Orleans, ran a nursery, and acted as a board member of the NOFFN before Katrina. Between growing and selling vegetables and herbs to local chefs and teaching people about how to grow their own food, Anne was at the center of a very authentic food system. Since the storm, Anne has shifted her focus to the issues facing all the residents of New Orleans: rebuilding.

The New Orleans Food and Farm Network is in the midst of conducting a food assessment in the city. This will help communicate to people where they can find food, complete with a map of all food retail locations (stores, restaurants, and markets) as well as relief food sources (soup kitchens, faith-based organizations, food pantries, etc). Additionally, this project will record the cultural, historical, and political elements of the New Orleans food system to provide information for locals who have returned or are returning and to help in future city planning.

Approximately 190,000 of New Orleans' 500,000 pre-Katrina residents have now returned. Although, Anne was quick to point out, in a rather unique way, each day that number climbs ever so slightly: "I see refrigerators out on the sidewalk every day. Seeing a refrigerator, to me, means that someone has come back." After a long absence and significant flood damage, disposing of the refrigerators with pre-hurricane goods left inside is the first step to getting back to normal when families return.

Anne spoke a little bit about the role of food in this unique city: "Everyone uses food as an agent to get together. When people are eating together here, they are already talking about the next meal. We have traditional foods here that you can't get anywhere else. Our community has entire festivals based on food, like the Creole Tomato Fest, and if it's a music festival, they are not as successful unless they include local flavors on the menu. Pretty much any event you have here involves good food." So, for a city that values food as much as it values music, the fact that some neighborhoods, like areas in the Mid-City neighborhoods, the Hollygrove neighborhood, and the Ninth Ward, have little or no access to any kind of food is severely limiting.

Only 27% of food retail spots (grocery stores, markets, convenience stores, restaurants, etc) are open in Orleans Parish and, because bus and streetcar systems are not up and running fully yet, many families still depend on emergency food supplies provided by national non-profits as well as local churches, community centers, and volunteer groups that come from mostly out-of-state.

BUT, there is hope, Anne was quick to reassure me. The Crescent City Farmers Market, which operated five citywide farmers markets before the storm, has two full farmers markets up and running. The Tuesday market, in the Uptown Square Shopping Center's parking lot in Uptown New Orleans, was the first to reopen in November, complete with the familiar faces of farmers and vendors. Just a week ago, the Saturday market at the corner of Magazine and Girod Streets in the Central Business District near downtown New Orleans reopened. Despite the reality that not all of the vendors have returned to their urban outlets, shoppers can still find a long list of local foods at these two markets. In addition, a new market has opened up just across the river from New Orleans in Gretna, Louisiana that serves the community as well. Many returning residents have had to move to the "west bank" of the Mississippi River, because their former homes are still unlivable on the "east bank" (New Orleans proper).

Since food is why we are thinking about this issue, I think it is worthwhile to tip my hat to the diversity of product that these markets are offering to New Orleans consumers. To name a few: strawberries, grapefruit, kumquats, naval oranges, spinach, boiled peanuts, zucchini, tamales, muffins, blue cheese dressing, fresh baked bread, crab meat, flounder, shrimp, catfish, duck sausage, quail, bacon, pulled pork, milk, eggs, cream cheese, butter, cut flowers, kettle corn, and a taste of local music. I can't help but think that if we all had local markets like this, we would have a lot to be thankful for!

That said, in New Orleans where fresh food is a very valuable commodity these days, it pays to get to the market early because the vendors always sell out!

New Orleans restaurants and chefs also play a big role in the local food system. Anne put it quite simply when she said: "New Orleans chefs were always proud to say 'I get my produce locally.'" Since the storm, many restaurants have struggled to reopen for a variety of reasons but of those that have opened their doors, many are unflagging in their commitment to those local farmers, and fishers, who are still able to bring product into the city. Serving local foods serves two purposes: supporting local business and having the best possible product. "If you don't have good food at your restaurant in New Orleans, you won't survive," Anne explains on pretty clear terms!

One issue that keeps food vendors, be they stores or restaurants, from reopening is that they need staff. However, city residents are determined to hire local workers to ensure that money spent in New Orleans stays in New Orleans. This is a cornerstone of local ideals around rebuilding, explained Anne. "Since the storm, there is a strong sense of determination and self reliance. People are realizing that we need to be self-sufficient through more community activity, hiring local staff, and asking questions about where things come from. The micro-economics of it are so clear to us. We want money to be spent in our city and stay in our city."

Not surprisingly, this notion has spilled over into people's perceptions of where their food should come from. "People were always aware of local foods," said Anne. "But since the storm, people are making more connections between self reliance, economics and local foods. They are asking questions and eating less at chain restaurants. It is a really good thing."

In short, and in Anne's words, "People here see Katrina as a big opportunity for positive change." And if my experience working with Anne at the advocate's trainings over these last couple months is any indication of the determination and passion of New Orleans residents, I am completely on board.

Don't forget to email me with your food and farm questions -