September 21, 2006

A Year Later: The Food Safety Network in New Orleans

By Sarah Steinberg

I have come to New Orleans today to bear witness to the devastation and to the early stages of renewal of this city.  It’s the one-year anniversary of Katrina, and the magnitude of the destruction is still unimaginable.  The bleak landscape of flood damage stretches as far as the eye can see.  The statistics and photos don’t do justice to what happened here. As we pass through these devastated communities, I look for any signs of progress, of hope.  The storm appears to have left nothing behind.   But I quickly find that what does remain are many dedicated and determined individuals, communities and organizations eager to rebuild this battered city in a way that is more equitable, just, and responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable.

One of those organizations is the Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans and Acadiana.  During the weeks and months that followed Katrina, many residents too poor, too frail or too isolated to leave turned to emergency food programs for food.  An official at the food bank tells me with great pride how volunteers helped distribute eight million pounds of food to hunger relief programs, the first month after Katrina hit.  This represented a six-fold increase over the food bank’s pre-Katrina distribution levels.  Sadly, it also represented a first for many recipients, who never thought they would need emergency-food relief.  Over the course of the last year, the food bank delivered over 51 million pounds of food in 23 parishes. This is a major success story for an organization that itself was homeless, and operated for weeks from a vacant Wal-Mart outside New Orleans.  Today, as the food bank commemorates this one-year anniversary, they look back on their accomplishments and look forward to many challenges.  Among them, the need for a new warehouse looms large.  At a reception to thank their supporters, food bank board and staff discuss the need to raise about $15 million for a new building.  With local and major donors in New Orleans experiencing severe donor fatigue, the food bank must generate financial support from contributors outside New Orleans for this project.  Meanwhile they also must grapple with how best to serve communities that lack adequate emergency food providers, lack electricity, lack access to public transportation and lack grocery retailers.

It is obvious as I drive around that the closure of grocery stores has created “food deserts” throughout the affected areas.  Only five major supermarkets are open in New Orleans, a city of 200,000 people.  In such an environment, it is easy to appreciate the concept of “community food security” and the need to rebuild and strengthen the local food system.  This ambitious goal is the priority of the New Orleans Food & Farm Network (NOFFN), which works to ensure equal access to safe, affordable and nutritious food in the Crescent City. I was eager to meet with the NOFFN staff as I pulled up to Lil’ Dizzy’s restaurant outside the French Quarter.  But as I stepped out of the taxi, the owner emerges from the restaurant door, “No water today, we are closed.”  This was a small inconvenience, but a window into the precarious nature of doing business, and finding a place to eat, in this battered city.  Over lunch, NOFFN staff tell me how they quickly moved, in the months after the storm, to publish neighborhood “food maps” to document available food resources in the hardest hit areas.  Volunteers and staff still periodically drive the streets, collecting information about the location, hours and offerings at reopened local food stores, po-boy shops, food pantries, restaurants and farmer’s markets. Now, NOFFN wants to begin more intensive work with neighborhood groups, faith leaders and nonprofits in three local communities to assess broader community food needs.  They envision hosting a series of neighborhood-led workshops to discover where and why food needs are unmet and how they can create change collectively.  The information each community gathers will be used to shape the establishment of community food programs, influence city planning, and encourage supermarket redevelopment.

Food has always – and will always – reflect the soul of New Orleans.  In a city known for it unique cuisine, it is possible that food will be an important organizing tool and rallying cry for those trying to redevelop these ravaged neighborhoods.  As I reflect on my brief visit, I am confident that with organizations like the food bank providing for immediate food needs, and NOFFN helping rebuild the local food system, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the ability of this city to feed itself and achieve great food security for all who live here.