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.”