ReFresh Project impacting New Orleans

Original article by Judy Walker in The Times-Picayune (October 24, 2014). Link to the original article here.

How ReFresh Project, a post-Katrina milestone, built a healthy food hub, including Whole Foods

When the Original Pinettes Brass Band leads a second-line to the rooftop of the old Schwegmann’s on North Broad Street around noon on Saturday (Oct. 25), it will kick off the opening party for ReFresh Project‘s fresh food hub in Mid-City and mark an important milestone in the neighborhood’s post-Katrina recovery.

The ReFresh Project is a collection of community-minded businesses and educational entities that includes Liberty’s Kitchen, a restaurant and youth culinary training program; the Goldring Center for for Culinary medicine at Tulane, a national model of a healthy foods teaching for medical students, doctors and community members; and a Whole Foods market, which promises a commitment to local products as well as instruction on healthy cooking and budget shopping.

Hundreds of people and dozens of community groups have spent years on the effort, which has gradually been adding partners to create a vibrant collection of educational, nonprofit and business partners.

The money to make it all happen has been cobbled together from a variety of sources. For example, check out the dark-green picnic tables and building materials for the raised garden beds on the rooftop of the old Schwegmann Bros. grocery.

“We didn’t have money to do the farm. Somehow we got hooked up with Garnier, who does projects with Terracycle,” a company who recycles the beauty company’s plastic waste into make the green boards, said Lisa Amoss, president of the board of Broad Community Connections, the developers of the ReFresh Center. “They donated $140,000 worth of materials, dirt and compost.”

Katrina births community involvement

Now retired, Amoss, who is the sister-in-law of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss, taught organizational skills and management in the Tulane School of Public Health, and at the University of New Orleans she taught collaboration.

“I worked with nonprofits for years,” Amoss said. “I’ve been on a number of boards, but never anything like this. It’s gratifying to see it work. And to work with all these young people, who want to be in New Orleans, and who wanted to come back to New Orleans. It keeps you young.”

Amoss has lived in the Bayou St. John neighborhood for 31 years. Like many others, she said, she started going to community meetings after Hurricane Katrina and the floods. She became more aware her neighbors, their needs and desires and wondered: How could these neighbors be brought together?

Broad Street runs through several neighborhoods, including Esplanade Ridge, Mid-City, Treme, Bayou St. John, part of the 7thWard and the part of Tulane being transformed by new medical complex.

Amoss and others formed “a little nonprofit,” Broad Community Connections in 2008, with people from all of the neighborhoods. And they started planning.

“I was lucky enough to know Karl Seidman, a professor at MIT in urban planning. He loves New Orleans and came down here after the storm. He’s a national expert on Main Street organizations, and he kind of advised us.”

At one point, Seidman brought his entire class to New Orleans to help plan.

The group applied to the National Trust for Historic Preservation community revitalization project. The program included no urban streets at the time, Amoss said, but several New Orleans thoroughfares applied through the state level and were accepted after Katrina. Broad Street was approved in 2009. (Also currently in the Louisiana program are St. Claude and Rampart Streets, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Old Algiers.)

The Main Street section of Broad is 15 blocks from Tulane Avenue to Bayou Road.

“Karl advised us that one way to start was to try and do a significant project to get going. This is hard when you have no money, or only a little bit of money.”

The biggest derelict property on Broad Street was one of the original Schwegmann Giant Super Market.

“We really had no business thinking we could do this, but we signed an agreement to purchase it from the owners,” Amoss said. “Then, we set out to make it happen.”

Raising awareness and calling in experts

Occasional events on the site brought neighbors together and got them used to going to the old Schwegmann’s Giant Supermarket. Events included flea markets, roof-top movies and a festival called Broad Street Brew-Ha-Ha celebrating beer and coffee. (This festival may return in spring, Amoss said.)

It took quite a few years to find the right partner and get the funding for redeveloping the building, Amoss said, which eventually was an $18 million project. Broad Community Connections partnered with L+M Development, the biggest affordable housing developer in New York City. L+M was in New Orleans to redevelop the Faubourg Lafitte mixed income community, formerly Lafitte public housing development.

“They’re experts on tax credit deals, and helped put together” the $18 million project. The tax credit financers are Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase; other public funding came from the City of New Orleans’ New Orleans Redevelopment Authority; the city’s Fresh Foods Retailer Initiative to get fresh food into underserved neighborhoods; Foundation for Louisiana; Low Income Investment Fund; Newman’s Own Foundation; Hope/Enterprise Corporation of the Delta and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation.

Broad Community Connection owns 20 percent of the ReFresh project building; L+M owns 80 percent.

“Because it’s so hard to get funding right now for nonprofits, a lot of nonprofits are looking for earned income,” Amoss said. “A share of the net rents of the building will go back to support our part of the organization. It’s not a huge amount of money, but at least it’s contributing to the public organization.”

One of nonprofit’s jobs was to find tenants for the site.

Luring tenants who fit the mission

“We knew that we would want a healthy grocery store here because the neighborhood is underserved,” Amoss said. “Whole Foods was our first choice.”

It turned out that Amoss had taught at Tulane with an old friend, John Elstrott, chairman of the board of Whole Foods. Amoss screwed up her courage and asked if Whole Foods could be a tenant.

It was good timing. Whole Foods was looking to be in more markets where it could promote healthy eating, and already had a contract for the first one in Detroit.

“They knew the Esplanade store was the first in the country, and knew that the Magazine Street and Veterans locations were booming and hard to get into,” Amoss said. “They wanted an alternative. And they liked the idea of being here, and in partnership with other people in the building.”

Along with Whole Foods, the hub has pulled together various entities, creating a community-minded collection of health-minded tenants:

Liberty’s Kitchen, which was originally located in a smaller building on Broad Street near Tulane Avenue, moved into the downstairs of a law office.Its new 10,000-square-foot site will allow the nonprofit organization to enroll more students in its full-time, 12-week program, which includes a Starbucks and barista program as well as a cafe open for breakfast and lunch.

The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, dedicated to teaching doctors about food and nutrition, so they can teach their students, moved here from the old Ruth’s Chris Steak House building on the corner of Tulane and Broad. They built a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, for medical students, medical professionals and community members, on the first floor between Whole Foods and Liberty’s Kitchen

Upstairs are offices for Firstline Schools, the five charter schools who have Edible Schoolyards as a teaching anchor. An nearby community room, funded through the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, provides a light and airy space adjacent to the rooftop that’s already been well used. Another tenant, downstairs on the Bienville Street side, is Boys Town.

And there is a small office for the Broad Community Connections Main Street executive director Jeff Schwartz. A paid director is one of the requirements of the Main Street program.

“He was at Ben Franklin with my kids, and happened to be in Karl Seidman’s class at MIT,” Amoss said.

Working together

The ReFresh NOLA Coalition includes all of the tenants and about 20 other organizations around the city that offer different services related to health and nutrition. The Prevention Research Center at Tulane University is designing evaluations for all these wraparound health services, measuring the efforts of the healthy-living hub.

For example, when people come to the doctors at the Tulane clinic with illnesses that can be addressed with a better diet, they come out with “health prescriptions.”

“Whole Foods had community health workers,” Amoss said. The workers take the holders of such prescriptions around the store and show them how to buy foods on the prescription affordably.

“It can be done,” Amoss said, noting that this store has greatly expanded its 365 line of house brands. Whole Foods is enthusiastic about replicating all this in Newark, N.J., in what will be their third urban market, she said.

At the Goldring Center, prescription holders can learn how to cook healthier foods, and at the farm, they can learn to grow the foods they need.

The new gardens here are about 6,000 square feet of raised beds, on the rooftop and perimeter of the building.

“We will be selling some of the produce to Liberty’s Kitchen and some on Good Eggs,” said Emily Mickley-Doyle, who with Matt Glassman coordinates the ReFresh Community Farm. The two will give individual and group gardening classes on a regular basis.

The fence in the middle of the raised beds outlining the garden areas will be used to grow vining crops, Glassman said. Passersby can help themselves.

The gardens are part of the city-wide network of Parkway Partners community gardens, as well as three urban garden groups: SPROUT NOLA, Harambee Community Farms of New Orleans and Faubourg Farms.

A block away is the Lafitte Greenway, “a great partner with us,” Amoss said.

The list of Broad Community Connections partners in as long as an heirloom cucuzza squash. Along with Parkway Partners, the Joan Mitchell Center, Whole Foods, SPROUT NOLA and more, 60 trees have been planted on Broad Street and Bayou Road.

In the mid 20th century, Broad Street was known for its neon signs that shone at night. One of the Broad Community Connections projects is to bring those signs back. The nonprofit worked with the Arts Council of New Orleans, with $25,000 from the National Endowment of  the Arts, to create neon signs for some of the iconic businesses on Broad.

Look for the neon on the headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, while you’re looking admiring the new trees on Broad Street.

Connecticut’s “sugar tax” bill first in the nation

Original article by Bill Cummings in News Times (March 10, 2015). Link to the original article here.

Sugar tax a slurp closer for Connecticut

HARTFORD — A bill which would make Connecticut the first in the nation to slap a penalty tax on sugary soda products passed a legislative committee Thursday and moved a few inches closer to becoming law.

The General Assembly‘s Committee on Children also passed a bill banning marketing of unhealthy food on school grounds.

“(The bill) has good intentions, but unintended consequences,” said Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, who added her town’s baseball fields have scoreboards proclaiming sponsorship by Coca-Cola.

Meanwhile, the surgery soda tax bill, sponsored by state Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, drew the most attention.

“I think we are missing a point here identifying sugar,” said state Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, who voted against the bill.

“We will see a rise in buying high concentrated fruit juices, which have a high sugar count, and Gatorade,” Staneski said. “Putting a tax on this will drive families trying to conserve dollars to the juices.”

The version of the bill passed Thursday does not include an earlier clause to also tax candy. Instead, the one cent per ounce tax would only apply to soda with high sugar content.

For a 20-ounce bottle of Coke costing $1.50, the tax would hike the price to $1.70.

Revenue from the tax would be used to fund programs to reduce heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington and the children’s committee chairwoman, said even if the bill does not become law — she acknowledged similar efforts failed in New York City and California — the discussion helps educate the public about the dangers of surgery drinks.

“The more we put this out there I think we are educating the public because we are highlighting the issue,” Urban said, referring to obesity and other diseases linked to surgery food products.

State Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison, said the tax will not deter children from buying soda.

“I can’t imagine a 12-year-old going up to the counter with his father’s $5 bill and making a decision not to buy soda because there is a tax on it, and then buy something else instead,” Kokoruda said.

USDA highlights Share Our Strength report

Original article by Tom Nelson on the USDA Blog (March 3, 2015).  Link to the original article here.

Hunger In Our Schools: Breakfast Is A Crucial “School Supply” For Kids In Need

As a nation, we spend a lot of time, effort and money on ways to better educate our children. In recent years, there have been fierce debates on No Child Left Behind, Common Core, teacher qualifications, textbook standards and more. These battles ignore one key factor, however: If our children are too hungry to learn, their success is doomed before we’ve even begun.

Working with the research firm SalterMitchell, No Kid Hungry recently completed a new national survey of 1,000+ educators across the nation as well as a series of focus group interviews with dozens of teachers and principals. The new report, “Hunger In Our Schools,” underscores the fact that hunger hampers a child’s ability to learn, but school breakfast offers a chance to solve this problem for millions of children.

At a time when a majority of America’s public school students come from low-income backgrounds, childhood hunger is a reality in American public schools. Among educators surveyed in the report, 76 percent say they have students who regularly come to school hungry.

A healthy breakfast is a critical school supply. Just as you would never expect a student to excel without access to their textbooks, we can’t expect them to excel without the daily fuel they need for their brains and bodies. As teacher Tony Notarides told interviewers, “The problem of hunger leads to all of these other problems. It has a snowball effect. These students fall behind and they never really catch up.”

In fact, educators who regularly see children come to school hungry describe seeing long list of associated effects, including an inability to concentrate (88%), a lack of motivation (87%), behavioral problems (65%), illness (53%) and poor academic performance (84%). “It’s heartbreaking when I can’t do my job because my students are hungry,” said third-grade teacher Audrey Harris.

Hunger in our schools, however, is a solvable problem. School breakfast is a critical but underutilized national program that bears a direct impact of children’s academic achievement and health. Nine out of ten educators in the Hunger In Our Schools survey say breakfast is critical to academic achievement, and 97% of educators say it’s important that children from low-income families have access to free, healthy breakfasts during the school year. This is borne out by research; a study conducted by Deloitte Consulting shows that when kids consistently eat breakfast at school, attendance rates improve and test scores rise.

The trouble is making sure children who need this meal are able to access it. Parents, kids, and school leaders cite a variety of barriers such as stigma of eating breakfast alone in the cafeteria; transportation problems (buses not delivering kids to school in time for breakfast); and misperceptions about the value of serving breakfast in new ways (such as serving it in the classroom as part of first period) as reasons why more low-income kids aren’t getting this vital meal as intended.

Many schools have found better ways to feed children. One particularly effective way is to move breakfast out of the cafeteria and makes it a seamless part of the school day for students. Of those teachers who have classroom breakfast programs, 75% say the program has been positive experience for their students. After bringing breakfast into their classrooms, three out of four teachers surveyed say students were more alert, while half said they saw discipline problems drop and attendance improve.

After instituting breakfast in her classroom, first-grade teacher Margot Shaver sees an immediate response in her students: “The light turns on; they’re able to function in the classroom.”

It’s time to turn the light on for more students. We can wipe out hunger for more students in more schools, but we must work together. Find more survey results, stories, and videos at HungerInOurSchools.org; tools that can raise greater awareness and bring a healthy school breakfast to more of the kids who need it.

Tom Nelson is the President of Share Our Strength, the national non-profit working to end childhood hunger in America through its No Kid Hungry campaign. Using proven, practical solutions, No Kid Hungry is ending childhood hunger today by ensuring that kids start the day with a nutritious breakfast and families learn the skills they need to shop and cook on a budget. When we all work together, we can make sure kids get the healthy food they need. No Kid Hungry is a campaign of national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength. Join us at NoKidHungry.org.

Opening of Jack and Jake’s identified as top “urban experiment”

Original article by Sasha Abramsky at The Nation (March 2015).  Link to the original article here.

Ten Urban Experiments That Your City Should Adopt

Although the Big Easy is one of America’s great culinary centers, diabetes and obesity have long plagued the city and, in particular, its poor residents. Many parts of town, especially after Hurricane Katrina wiped out local businesses, are food deserts, lacking ready access to healthy foods.

Entrepreneur John Burns has sought to change this. With the help of funding from progressive social impact investors and the city, his company Jack & Jake’s has opened several large wholesale outlets since 2011 that work with local farmers and fishermen to get healthy food into grocery stores and restaurants. In early spring, the company is set to open a 27,000-square-foot market-cum–food court in an abandoned schoolhouse in the Central City neighborhood. If the strategy works, it will open low-cost stores featuring healthy alternatives to junk food—both fresh produce and prepared local dishes—in poor, diabetes-ravaged communities throughout the South and Appalachia. “This model is attractive,” argues Burns, “because it’s not the traditional grocery store model.”

All of this is part of a broader strategy to prioritize social impact investments in post-Katrina New Orleans and to convert disused warehouses, schools and other large spaces into hubs for economic activity in poor neighborhoods. Will it work? The Big Easy still has a long way to go. But if it can find a way to tackle the obesity and diabetes epidemics that afflict its impoverished communities, that will be its own kind of triumph.

NPR reports on food deserts in NOLA, quotes FPAC

Original article by Eliza Barclay at NPR’s The Salt (3/15/13).  Link to the original article here.

Can Star Power Make New Orleans’ Food Deserts Bloom?

Plenty of celebrities leverage their star power to raise awareness of complicated food issues. Some of the biggest names include Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, Prince Charles and Paul McCartney.

Down in New Orleans, actor Wendell Pierce, who stars in David Simon’s Treme and, previously,The Wire, has been taking on food insecurity in low-income communities with brand new convenience stores. Pierce has received plenty of attention for his efforts and appeared this week on NPR’s Tell Me More to talk about the opening of the first grocery store in his New Orleans-based Sterling Farms chain earlier this spring.

Even though New Orleans’ restaurant sector is booming — there are over 1,200 in the city, even more than before Hurricane Katrina — many communities outside the center have been waiting in vain for supermarkets to return. That’s because of investors’ “economic apathy,” Pierce says.

food desert is defined as an area where the nearest grocery store is more than 10 miles away. And New Orleans has plenty of them, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Food Access Research Atlas shows. “For me, growing up in New Orleans, where so much of the culture is based around food, it’s unacceptable [to have them],” Pierce told Tell Me More.

But even with Pierce’s leadership (he was recently named one of FastCompany‘s 100 most creative people in business) and investment dollars behind the effort, a host of stumbling blocks still make it hard to get fresh, healthful foods to people living in these areas. And as food activists are discovering all over the country, grocery stores alone won’t make the food desert bloom.

This isn’t Pierce’s first foray into rebuilding New Orleans: After Katrina, he set to work building new energy-efficient homes in his neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park. That process was beset with delays and snafus — not unlike a lot of the scenarios that appear in Treme and The Wire. “It’s life imitating art, and art imitating life,” Pierce toldthe New York Times last year. “The shows influence me, and the work I do influences the shows.”

Like his housing initiative, Pierce’s retail food plan has been moving slowly. In addition to marshaling private funds, Pierce and his partners went after grants awarded through the Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative. Even with them, coming up with the financing for the project hasn’t been easy.

“The most difficult part is making sure that everybody is on board when it comes to the banking institutions,” Pierce said. The bankers, he said, had to be convinced that grocery and convenience stores would be viable business models in these communities.

Sterling Express is now operating two convenience stores, along with the new grocery store. The success of these ventures is ultimately going to depend on how well they can meet the needs of the communities they serve.

One issue is transportation. Sterling Farms is offering shoppers who spend $50 or more a free shuttle ride home — which might be more convenient than boarding a public bus with armloads of groceries. That option prompted this comment on Tell Me More‘s interview with Pierce: “Genius idea, as lack of transportation is a major stumbling block to folks getting access to quality, competitively-priced, heavy, fresh food choices!”

And as we reported last year, studies show that shoppers don’t just care about cost and proximity to fresh produce — they also need choice and quality if they’re going to buy it.

Mike Kantor, co-chairman of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, commends Pierce’s program. But he says there’s another key part of the puzzle: making sure the poorest people in these communities are getting the food stamps, or SNAP benefits, they’re entitled to.

“When we talk about food deserts, we can’t just focus on location and geographic access,” Kantor tells The Salt. “We have to talk about economic security, which means talking about programs the people going to shop at stores rely on in order to afford the produce that’s sold there.”

According to Kantor, more than 20 percent of households in the state of Louisiana live under the federal poverty line. While 77 percent of the people in the state who are eligible for SNAP are participating in the program, that coverage could be higher.

“And the actual benefit amount,” he notes, “is barely enough for people relying on the program.”

Market Umbrella releases Senior Market Match study

Market Umbrella, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit think tank and practitioner farmers market organization, has released a study of its Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) Market Match program. Launched in 2008, the program offers eligible low income senior citizens matching funds in market tokens for the SFMNP vouchers they receive through the USDA. In 5 years, the program has yielded a 501% increase in the total number of participating seniors at the three locations of the Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM) in New Orleans. By leveraging private foundation investments to bolster public funds and resources, SFMNP Market Match has helped these farmers markets form lasting relationships with community members, senior centers and government agencies. For more information, please visit marketumbrella.org. You can download a copy of the report here.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture at Hollygrove Market and Farm

Food Hubs

Posted by Judy Walker at the Times-Picayune (2/26/13).  Link to the original article here.

Put a new word in your food vocabulary. Tuesday morning at Hollygrove Market & Farm, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture announced a major new USDA report about food hubs — like Hollygrove — across the United States. It’s a way to support the local food movement, highlighting what works to get food from small farmers to a public increasingly hungry to eat and support food from their area.

Food hubs are businesses or organizations that offer infrastructure, support and marketing to build regional food systems. The USDA’s new reports highlights best practices in the 223 food hubs they have identified across the country.

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan explained how food hubs that aggregate the crops of small farmers can provide enough local food for not just consumers but schools, institutions and restaurants.

“It’s a way small and midsize farmers can prosper,” Merrigan said. That would include farmers Lester Williams and Bruce Harold, who drove 175 miles to the event, carpooling from their homes in Bastrop and Marksville, as they have once a week for the past two years to bring their crops to Hollygrove in New Orleans.

In the back room, where beautiful brussels sprouts were being bagged for the afternoon, the grower of the sprouts, Frank Fekete, had come from Tangipahoa Parish, where he farms 25 acres and teaches agriculture at Independence High School.

Hollygrove contacted him “four or five years ago,” Fekete said. “I was in the field. I get a lot of calls. But it turned out to be a big deal. It helps me out. I can’t deal with chain stores.”

Also in the audience: Self-described “coonass farmer” and handyman Elvia Chauvin, who has 38 citrus trees and vegetables on his 2.8 acres in Marrero, where he also raises  chickens and rabbits. He brings eggs and vegetables to Hollygrove.

“It’s been a blessing,” Chauvin said. “With the economy the way it is, when the work slows down, it helps pay the bills.”

The USDA has been putting a lot of thought, energy and information into food hubs, said Merrigan, and is looking at their vast number of programs to see how they can facilitate food hubs around the country. Food hubs can offer services such as cold storage, processing and transportation.

“We need many, many more,” she said. “Hospitals can buy local food, or if the Federal Reserve can buy local food, as they want to do in Chicago.”

Merrigan said the move towards local food is the largest food trend seen in decades. Last week at the annual USDA conference, WalMart did a presentation that said 40 percent of their customers are asking for locally grown produce.

“This is a huge phenomenon, and we want there to be job creation out of it,” Merrigan said.

In an interview the day before the announcement, Merrigan said the country is undergoing a huge farmer transition. The average age of farmers is near 60, and a third are over age 65.

“We know we need to bring in the next generation. A lot of the beginning, young farmers are interested in locally grown. But when you’re going in, if you’re not inheriting the family farm, how do you begin? Agriculture is so capital intensive, the cost of a tractor, the cost of a combine.

“The way to do it is have a high value crop on a small acreage and sell direct (to consumers.). That’s how you can pencil it out, and be an economy viable for young people so it’s a great stepping stone. Some will stay in that market their whole career. And some will scale up, and will go to the food hub.”

At the event, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said his department recognizes the need to promote new and beginning farmers.

“We all understand the new generation must come from nontraditional areas,” he said.

As chef Paul Prudhomme started a cooking demonstration, Paul Baricos was at the back of the crowd with a notebook and a big smile on his face. With the Carrollton-Hollygrove Community Development Corp and the New Orleans Food & Farm Network, Baricos founded the market in 2008 on an acre that had been a nursery before Katrina. The mission was to help bring local, affordable food to the neighborhood and to train growers.

Baricos became the group’s executive director. Now, Hollygrove works with about 50 farmers of all types in and around New Orleans, and their CSA-style seasonal produce box program has been so successful their hours have gradually expanded from four hours a week to four days a week. Baricos retired a year ago and is working again on community development projects in Hollygrove.

Clarence Hawkins, the Louisiana State Director for the USDA’s Rural Development, noted the inherent contradiction of an event contributing to rural development in New Orleans.

The USDA has an online tool, a compass map entitled “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” that identifies local food hubs and investments the federal government has made in them. Ten are listed for New Orleans.

So why did the Deputy Secretary and entourage choose New Orleans for the announcement?

“There’s a lot of interest in New Orleans,” Merrigan said. “It’s such a foodie town, a town with resilience, and a lot of interest in building local food systems to create jobs and create economic stability for people.”

Circle Food Store to reopen summer 2013

Posted by Alex Woodward at the Gambit 1/14/13) via Circle Food Store to reopen summer 2013.

Raindrops filled a few puddles inside the shell of Circle Food Store, the iconic domed Treme grocery store and community space, which has stood empty since the 2005 floods when 5 feet of water filled the landmark. It first opened in 1939 as the first African-American-owned grocery store in New Orleans. Today, city officials and owner Dwayne Boudreaux held a ceremonial groundbreaking and announced the store’s reopening in summer 2013.

“This was an iconic place for so many of us. It was the hub of the 7th Ward,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “There are very few symbols of what New Orleans was and what it could be than Circle Food Store.”

Last summer, Landrieu’s office announced a $1 million loan from the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which launched in March 2011 to offer low-cost, flexible financing to retailers looking to expand affordable fresh food options in under-served neighborhoods. FFRI is financed by $7 million in Disaster Community Development Block Grant funds, matched by the Hope Enterprise Corporation (totaling $14 million in FFRI funds).

Boudreaux told Gambit construction will likely begin next week and he anticipates the store reopening in July. Landrieu’s economic development advisor Aimee Quirk said the store will employ 75 full- and part-time jobs.

Photos taken from Interstate 10 above the store came to define the flood’s impact in the wake of the 2005 floods. “I read somewhere that, ‘Circle Food Store has drowned,'” Boudreaux said. “It’s like we drowned, but we still had a heartbeat.”

“That was the lowest point for me,” said a teary-eyed New Orleans District D councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. “It dawned on me that we were under water. … When Circle Food Store is back, I’m going to know New Orleans is really back.”

District C councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmersaid fresh food access is one of the council’s priorities — she noted the lack of grocery stores in her district, from Algiers to St. Claude and Claiborne avenues. “That’s inexcusable,” she said.

Landrieu said the store “will once again be the anchor of this community and spur economic development.”