In New Orleans, access to nutritious food for many residents was a problem even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And since then, many food stores and markets have closed. So called urban food deserts make it difficult for people to buy basic food stuffs because of the long travel distance required to get to a market, this is especially so in less affluent neighborhoods. According to data gathered by the non-profit Social Compact, 40 out of 73 New Orleans neighborhoods do not have a full service supermarket. The lack of access to vegetables, dairy, and other nutritious food items leads to increased rates of obesity and diet-related disease. Louisiana has the highest rate in the country for deaths from diabetes.
In a city with a rich agricultural and food history, there is now a growing movement towards urban farming and revitalizing local food economies as a source of growing fresh produce and other food items for local consumption. In 2010, I spent a few weeks getting to know the people and organizations involved – from local farmers and growers to teachers, entrepreneurs, farmer’s market organizers, and food distribution specialists. The following photo essay tells a little bit about the story of food, nutrition, people and place in New Orleans.
A version of this photo essay was published in Face Magazine.
At the Wise Words Community Garden in mid-town community members can join for as little as $10 per month. Members help with weeding, planting and pest control and receive a box of fresh produce and eggs every week. Joe Brock (photo above) started Wise Words as a way to help provide the community with something more than fresh, healthy food: “I could rent out plots. I could also just sell produce – but then people don’t get it. They gotta come and see and be a part of growing the food – then they get it”.
A few miles away, Brock also started the Mid-City Community Garden. Alive with vegetables, fruits and chickens, the garden is built entirely on top of a cement parking lot. The vegetable beds are raised boxes, some of which are equipped with water capturing barrels. Mosquito fish live in the barrels, eating larvae and helping to fertilize the soil. “We need a more conservationist way of living,” says Brock. “We need to cover our costs. Gardening – growing food can do this.” The mid-City garden supports roughly 30 members.
Across town in the lower Ninth Ward, The School at Blair Grocery is a non-profit whose central mission is food security. The school-yard garden, pictured above and below, serves as a learning example for the neighborhood. The schoolhouse, built in the 1940s, was the neighborhood grocery store for decades owned and run by the Blair family. Mrs. Blair passed away in the 1980’s and asked her children not to sell the property. Today, the Blair family leases the land and house to the non-profit. The schoolhouse acts as a classroom and refuge for students and a meeting space for community events and workshops. And, the School at Blair Grocery has also forged relationships with rural farms in the Tangipahoa Parish in an effort to further reinvigorate the area’s agricultural economy.
Brennan, the farm manager and instructor at the school, waters greens (below, top left). Produce from the urban farm is sold to neighborhood residents, to restaurants and food distribution centers and markets in New Orleans.
Jim Bremmer (image, above) surveys boxes of wild onions, carrots, kale and lettuce harvested that morning from the gardens at Blair Grocery. He is delivering the produce to high-end restaurants in New Orleans – including Emerald’s and the Ritz Carlton. “Micro-farms aren’t going to feed the city,” says Bremmer. “They’re an important part for education, for peace of mind – but, we need the big farms outside of the city [in order to meet the demand of a larger population]. The problem is – we need labor to work all of the fertile land.”
Jon Burns (image, above), co-founder of Jack and Jake’s, a food retail and distribution startup, works in his make-shift office in the 8,000 sq ft space in mid-town that will soon become a food retail store. Most items will be sourced from more than 200 farms within 65 miles of the store. “We want to be beyond organic,” says Burns. “Local is first, everything else is second.”
Burns also plans to open a food distribution center for local growers. As Burns sees it, plenty of fertile land exists in and around the city and there are many undernourished neighborhoods. Localized food distribution is a way to connect the two and to help revitalize local and rural agricultural economies. “Our mission is to get the price of real, healthy, local food down and to meet the food needs of communities in NOLA,” says Burns. “It’s a positive feedback loop. And, it never gets started with out the space I’m standing in right here.”
A short drive from Jack and Jake’s, The Hollygrove Farm and Market is a community non-profit. The land was donated by the Community Development Corporation and farm space is provided for community residents and for mentor farmers. Ronald Terry (image above, top left) is a mentor farmer with decades of growing experience. Mentor farmers receive the growing space free of charge and in return, act as guides and teachers for members of the community who want to learn how to grow their own food.
Macon Fry is also a mentor farmer at Hollygrove. Above, he teaches school children how to harvest Chard. According to Jimmy Delery, another local grower, “Not a lot of food can be grown in this space – but when kids come and learn about growing food – they can pick real food and eat it – it’s how we all get connected.”
(Above, top right) A local resident shops at the Hollygrove market – where the produce is picked fresh daily. Hollygrove’s mission is to act as a community center and to teach residents how to grow their own food gardens at home.
Long time Lower Ninth resident, Jenga Mwendo (below, top left), started the Back Yard Gardeners Association. According to Mwendo, “what we need is to not be completely dependent on corporations for our food. We need to grow some ourselves.”
The Guerrilla Garden, also managed by Mwendo, grows a variety of citrus fruit and garden vegetables. “Gardening encourages interactions between generations,” says Mwendo. “That’s how we pass on our traditions.”
In the Lower Ninth ward, The Villere Farm project (above, top right) was started to help provide nutritious food for the community and to serve as a model for urban farming and sustainable business. The land is owned by the original owner and is on lease to lowernine.org for $1 per year. The land would otherwise be vacant.
Vacant lots, such as those shown above, were frequent throughout the Lower Ninth following the flooding in 2005. Some believe the land could be utilized for food production to provide jobs and food security for the community. Many are also concerned with the possibility of soil contamination with pollutants such as lead. Such soil contamination is common in many urban areas (due largely to the fact that lead based paints were not banned in the USA until the early 1970s). Though, the flooding after Hurricane Katrina also left heavy deposits of industrial, chemical, and agricultural wastes throughout much of the lower ninth ward.
At the Edible Schoolyard at Samuel J. Green Charter School the gardens serve as an active classroom and laboratory for the school’s 475 students, grades K-8. The garden produces roughly 3,000 lbs of fruits and vegetables every year. Francesca, a garden apprentice and assistant teacher, turns a compost pile (above, lower left). The learning garden produces some 6,500 lbs of compost per year, mostly from food scraps from the school’s cafeteria. “It just makes sense,” says Francesca. “The kids are so knowledgeable about the garden and what grows there and how it is grown.” The learning garden is utilized by classes in all disciplines – from math to history and the sciences. Children learn to understand their connectedness to their environments and the natural world.
Inside the school’s learning kitchen, a kindergarten class prepares for a lesson. The kitchen uses fruits and vegetables that the students help to grow in the garden and teaches them to prepare different meals using real, healthy food. For the kids, the kitchen connects nature with culture, the garden with food. Chef Jessie, one of the kitchens instructors, helps the kids to make wraps (above). “The best way to fight childhood obesity and malnourishment is to teach them,” says Jessie. Most kids don’t know that fried, processed foods aren’t good for them – their parents don’t know.” Often times, the kids will bring their new found food knowledge home and teach their parents about healthier eating alternatives.
The photographs and reporting here were first published in 2010. This is a revised and updated version.
Drew is an Oakland Freelance Photographer and a San Francisco Freelance Photographer and a Bay area Freelance Photographer; an Oakland wedding photojournalist and a San Francisco wedding photojournalist; while he is based in the Bay area, Drew regularly photographs for clients throughout all of California, including Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, San Jose, Marin County, Santa Cruz, Eureka, Santa Rosa, Mendocino, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbra, and Napa, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, all across the USA and everywhere on Earth. He specializes in creative storytelling and artistic photojournalism, environmental photojournalism, environmental justice photography, and stories about human-earth relationships including urban farming, agriculture, water use, climate change, ocean issues, energy issues, pollution, and natural resource economics. You can view more of his photojournalism, editorial, and lifestyle work here and more of his documentary style wedding work here.