What better place to talk about the right to food, land and water than in one of the US’s great food capitals, New Orleans? I’ve just returned from Share our Strength’s (http://www.strength.org) annual Conference of Leaders – a remarkable network of restaurateurs and chefs seeking to end childhood hunger, a network with which Grassroots International is honored to collaborate.
At the core of SOS’ work is an ethos of community service. Hundreds of SOS volunteers spent a Sunday behind dust masks tossing moldy papers into a dumpster at the Martin Luther King (MLK) School in the Lower Ninth Ward. The water level had reached 22 feet. A tuba’s beat provided by a community jazz band put some funk in our sweeping and scrubbing. The ravaged neighborhood is coming back far too slowly, but it is coming back. The school plans to reopen on Martin Luther King’s birthday. I chatted with a resident, a lonely one, keeping the lawn trim and street swept so his neighbors, when they come back, will feel right at home. For now his was the only occupied home I saw over deserted blocks of houses knocked off foundations and crushed under trees.
The MLK principal and teachers are counting on the school to play an anchor role, a beacon to call people back to the community. Despite the thousands upon thousands of houses still waiting to be gutted, restored or demolished in the Lower Ninth, the resolve to come back is gaining strength. The neglect of FEMA and other inept public institutions won’t keep folks away.
Accompanying New Orleans chefs, restaurateurs and food producers is an extraordinary window through which to understand how the Gulf’s food supply chain was interrupted and how it can be restored. We heard from shrimpers and farmers who lost boats and crops in the storm but who are now — with pray little public support — reviving their livelihoods. To aid in this recovery, SOS has provided grants to the Market Umbrella (http://www.marketumbrella.org) and the Crescent City Farmers Market (http://www.crescentcityfarmersmarket.org/) while Grassroots is helping the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com/) rebuild damaged Gulf Coast farms.
The “buy local” opportunities that these organizations provide are crucial to the revival of local food producers. For example, the Crescent City Farmers Market, now in its tenth year, offers critical shelf space for local producers – to the tune of $50,000/week in sales, a huge volume of business for many of these small producers. A Federation of Southern Cooperatives farmer and leader, farmer Ben Burkett, is a frequent vendor at the market.
Two Share our Strength chefs offered a cooking demonstration at Crescent City. It was a moving sight to witness their dishes emerging from the offerings of some of the region’s farmers and fishers – bell peppers, collards, and of course the shrimp. As the chefs sautéed, they sang the praise of these delicious, healthy, local ingredients and the fishers and farmers who delivered their bounty.
Following Katrina, the shrimp were thick in the gulf waters; a mix of environmental factors created the most abundant run that shrimpers had ever seen. But with boats wrecked and ice scarce, fishing was nearly impossible. The restaurants responded (because the Small Business Administration didn’t) offering to finance a generator and ice machine. The restaurants desperately wanted that local shrimp back on their menu. It was a virtuous circle of mutual support.
Two of the shrimpers, Ray and Kay Brandhurst were leaving the next week to the Slow Food Meeting in Torino, Italy (http://slowfood.com). Other Crescent City Farmers Market folks had recently been at the Community Food Security Coalition (http://www.foodsecurity.org/) meeting in Vancouver. Another Louisiana shrimper, Margaret Curole, is a board member of the World Forum of Fishworkers and Fishharvesters (http://www.pcffa.org/wff.htm.
What a remarkable mosaic to observe in creation — the complementary pieces of a healthy global food system coming together based on growing global alliances. The Via Campesina – an international federation representing over 100 million small producers around the world — calls this mosaic “food sovereignty” (http://viacampesina.org/main_en/index.php). It is a vision of all people having the right to decide what they eat — not just the products of industrial agriculture that dominate our supermarket shelves — and to ensure that agriculture in their community sustains small producers and the environment.
However, food sovereignty is a distant dream if we consumers don’t buy local products, voting with our dollars to support small producers. And so I leave you with a practical action to rebuild New Orleans’ food system and at the same time to delight your palate. Give a call to Ray and Kay Brandhurst at 504 228 8038 (http://www.fourwindsseafood.com) and have them deliver a box of shrimp to your doorstep.
It’s a small but powerful action. We’re sick and tired of shrinking numbers of small farmers, the glut of unhealthy corporate-chosen products in our stores, the thousands of miles our food travels, the startling cost to society in wealth inequality and environmental destruction of our present food system.
And check it out. A slow shift is underway. On the horizon, can you see the homogeneous food supply breaking up into thousands of small producers? Can you imagine a bio-diverse mosaic of food suppliers emerging from below? With a growing movement for food sovereignty, a movement that producers and consumers alike can all be part of, we can build a healthy food system.