There's a subtle irony embedded in our current national craving for locally grown food: Cities, the antithesis of the countryside, have arguably become the easiest place to indulge in it. The rise of farmers' markets and buying clubs has transformed urban food possibilities and the economic viability of small American farmers. It's a radical shift, and one driven not by market forces or government, but by the work of a burgeoning cadre of activists from coast to coast. Driven by the belief that everyone should have access to fresh, local food, these visionaries are changing the contents of city shoppers' carts from Philadelphia's tony Society Hill to the gritty edges of Oakland, California.

Mapping Out Meals - New Orleans, LA

Two days before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Marnie Genre was putting down roots in the Big Easyliterally. Planting backyard fruit and vegetable gardens in the city's Hollygrove neighborhood, Genre and her colleagues at the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN), a food justice group, were aiming to improve the health of residents in the low-income communities while bolstering local food systems.

Then Katrina hit. Hollygrove sat under floodwaters for days. And when they receded, NOFFN knew that everything had changedincluding what they needed to do.

“We weren't going to build backyard gardens when people didn't have homes to live in,” says Genre, 35, who, like many New Orleanians, ate mostly army rations when she returned to the city that November. Though she was trained as an optometrist, Genre found herself focusing not on medicine, but on getting food onto people’s plates. “There was maybe one grocery store open in the city when I came back, and we thought finding food was the most important thing,” she says.

 

So Genre and Max Elliott, another NOFFN member who’d returned to the city, hit the ground running. Their mission: Chart neighborhood every possible food source, from soup kitchens to restaurants to the few retailers still operating. With the help of other nonprofits in the city, NOFFN created online maps using donated software and distributed thousands of paper versions throughout city neighborhoods.

That pragmatic approach sets NOFFN’s maps apart from the growing body of community food assessments across the country, says Jeannette Abi-Nader, who sits on NOFFN’s advisory board. With her day job as evaluation program manager of the Community Food Security Coalition, a national group focused on food and health, Abi-Nader sees a lot of food maps. New Orleans was different, she says, because “it was information you really needed to know…it wasn’t just a research project. What’s more, she adds, “it got people out in the neighborhoods.”

The result? National media attention for their work, a direct connection to the city’s vibrant—if recovering—neighborhoods, and an unparalleled opportunity to get food issues on the table.

Indeed, before the hurricane, “there wasn't a lot of discussion around food security or food justice,” says Genre, who now serves as the associate director of NOFFN. But with residents displaced and living in trailers, “even people who didn't worry about … where they were able to find food started thinking about it.”

The lesson appears to have stuck. Earlier this year, the city adopted a Food Policy Advisory Council—a local body charged with assessing and administering local food decisions, from starting community food gardens to deciding which catering companies to use for city events.

With discussions about access to fresh food in ramping up—they’ve helped pen a New Orleans Food Charter to keep discussion moving—NOFFN’s scaling back the labor-intensive mapping work. Instead of the whole city, they’ll focus on one neighborhood. They’ll also return to some of their original plans: boosting local food production, raising awareness of local food traditions and generating demand for healthier options.

Genre’s most excited about an effort in the Algiers neighborhood, another low-income community. The 14-week project will send high school students to interview locals about food—everyone from senior citizens to the guy selling produce out the back of his truck. The final project will feature a detailed local food map identifying everything from local good gardens to which shops take government food program coupons, and a poster series explaining the food system and culture will be displayed in public spaces.

The idea is to engage local communities while sowing the seeds for healthy changes down the road. “Helping the youth to be educators is really a great way to [foster] long-term understanding in the community,” on food issues says Genre. “It’s not just a matter of having food but having healthy food and having choices.”

Story by Tracie McMillan. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Continue reading this series

Soil to stoops: Detroit

Soil to stoops: Philadelphia

Soil to stoops: Oakland

Soil to stoops: Brooklyn

Soil to stoops: New Orleans