Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The food network

Yes, a food network. I'm not talking about the cable channel. (Come on, people, I haven't had regular access to cable TV in years. Remember how I had to bribe my way into friends' apartments on Wednesday nights with offers of cooking them dinner so that I could watch Season 5 of LOST? I'm just now catching up on Season 6 on Todd's computer. Um, I mean, I'm very focused on serious blog commentary during this rare opportunity to type on something other than my blackberry.) Today I mean to share some of what I learned about an amazing organization called the New Orleans Food & Farm Network (or NOFFN, for short)....

My first interaction with the diversified food education and advocacy group was this past Saturday, when I joined staff, garden leaders, and volunteers to help out with the Backyard Gardens program -- an offshoot of the Farm Yard Project -- which builds vegetable gardens for primarily elderly and low-income families around the city. (Some residents can afford the $100 garden installation -- a steal, considering $400-500 in materials, labor, and transportation costs -- while others apply for scholarships to cover all or part of the cost.) We met up at Hollygrove Market around 8:30am -- yes, the city that never sleeps was up early -- and after a brief history of the organization and an overview of the neighborhoods and garden-building process, we divided into groups, picked up our supplies (shovels, gloves, seed packets, water, and snacks), and headed out. I was fortunate enough to get a lift with Ana (an intern at NOFFN) and Bernadette (a garden leader, longtime city resident, and consummate storyteller) to Sheila's home in the lower 9th ward, where we would be digging up sod and putting in a potted garden along the fence line. Not three hours later, after a truck dropped off topsoil, compost, manure, mulch, and plastic pots, we stood back to admire the line of potted vegetable seedlings and a plot cleared and leveled for a future raised bed -- all thanks to the elbow grease of our team plus Sheila's grandson J'ai (an aspiring gardener) and materials supplied by the nonprofit. A garden in three hours: talk about instant gratification. Check out a close-up of some of the plants above. [If Ana gets back to me with a group photo, I'll post it, too. Well, depending on how clearly the camera captured how covered in dirt and sweat I was....]

Identifying needs and getting things done seems to underpin everything that the Food & Farm Network does. (Incidentally, "getting things done" was the AmeriCorps slogan back during my *NCCC days. Just today I learned that a good proportion of the work at the NOFFN office is handled by AmeriCorps service members. No wonder they get so much done with such a lean staff!) When the Network began, the group was quite literally a grass roots cadre of community gardeners who, back in 2002, had decided that New Orleans had an unconscionable number of neighborhoods without access to fresh, healthy food. In the aftershock of Hurricane Katrina, NOFFN went into emergency mode, developing "food maps" depicting different parts of the city where food -- any food at all -- could be found. Grocery stores, farmers markets, corner stores, soup kitchens. The need was for food, so they found it and handed out thousands upon thousands of maps to shell-shocked residents so that they could locate it nearby. Out of this initial response, the food justice organization began building on their success fostering community relationships, developing materials for varied neighborhoods to conduct their own research, connect with each other, and decide for themselves how best to develop stronger local foodsheds.

One of the things I've come to realize about NOLA (as the locals affectionately refer to the city) is that, maybe even more than New York City, there is a deep sense of belonging to a specific neighborhood: people identify themselves to a large degree based on where they live. Residents, especially in the veritable food deserts in poorer wards, needed food, and they had firsthand knowledge about the challenges and needs of their specific neighborhoods. (Another thing I realized about this town is that many food justice and post-Katrina reconstruction efforts have succeeded in spite of the kafkaesque bureaucracy at City Hall.) The Food & Farm Network staff continue to work alongside residents in different areas to determine how best to get food where it is needed.

During an animated conversation earlier today at the program's Bank Street office, I learned from the lovely Alicia (the community organizer on staff) that the organization works closely with a wide variety of partners across the city to support a broad spectrum of longer-term projects beyond backyard gardens and food maps: from booklets explaining zoning laws for aspiring livestock owners in the city to cooking classes for high school students. There are advisory groups and garden leaders -- experienced and friendly community gardeners like Tony, pictured above with Alicia outside of the NOFFN office -- and a growing number of passionate volunteers and residents helping to make the network stronger, even more connected. Keep your eye on this group that is making a real difference to support sustainable growing practices and ensure access to safe, nutritious, enjoyable food.

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