Posted on November 9, 2010 - by

Makin’ Groceries by Megan Burns

As a newly transplanted New Orleanian, I am overwhelmed by the amazing food system work underway in the city of re-birth. I moved to New Orleans over a year ago to study Community Public Health as it relates to school and community gardens and, thanks to a new friend, quickly joined forces with a neighborhood group working to build a combination community-schoolyard garden a few blocks from my house.

Before starting graduate school, I studied and worked in the fields of environmental education and organic agriculture. While working on farms and community gardens, it became impossible for me to ignore the patterns of food access and community  health. Growing fresh healthy produce was fulfilling work but I decided to shift gears towards making this food available to everyone. There are so many organizations and individuals in New Orleans who are doing just that. The most inspiring aspect of the food/urban agriculture community’s work here is the commitment to addressing the problems in our food system by bringing everyone to the table to ensure that the movement is not circumscribed by class or race.

I recently attended the Community Food Security Coalition’s annual conference in New Orleans, an amazing event not to be missed by anyone interested in food and community. Among the many, many inspiring speakers was Aba Ifeoma, a founding member of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. She posed this question to those in the audience doing community work around healthy food and food justice: Are you working for or are you working with? If we are working for, we lack community engagement and as Aba pointed out, we may be reinforcing traditional roles of power without even being aware of it. If our work lacks community engagement, especially those communities who suffer the most from our broken food system, we will never bring strength to the food movement.

This engagement is not easy and requires time and trust. I am currently working with students at the James Weldon Johnson Elementary School in New Orleans as a New Orleans Albert Schweitzer Fellow to develop and implement a garden program called Makin’ Groceries. (Makin’ Groceries is slang for grocery shopping in New Orleans.) Students at the Johnson School are predominantly African-American (99%) and eligible for free or reduced lunch (98%). The goal of the Makin’ Groceries program is to incorporate families and communities through a school garden program to improve attitudes towards fresh fruits and vegetables and begin a conversation about food accessibility. I developed this program quite blind to community work in New Orleans and the strains young families face these days. I’m positive that I am learning more than anyone else involved in the project!

Although the in-school portion of the Makin’ Groceries program has been successful, the community and family engagement is slow going. Just last weekend I invited all my students to a free children’s event at Hollygrove Market and Farm, an urban farm in the neighboring community. Only one of the thirty-six students in the program attended. I was in the middle of lamenting my recruitment failure to a fellow community gardener when she interrupted- “You had someone come out, that’s great. That’s how it starts!”

We have had some unique engagement successes. In order learn more about their own culinary and agriculture traditions, 3rd graders at Johnson developed questions and conducted interviews with a family or community member. Many students asked about how to make traditional dishes such as yaka mein and jambalaya. Others learned of grandparents and parents who kept large gardens at one time. Students took notes during the interviews and are still in the process of writing up their reports. This
was an authentic way to engage families and communities and honor culture while respecting travel and time constraints faced by these families. We hope to send copies of our final reports along with pictures of the students and their interviewees to First Lady Michelle Obama.

A few ways to begin to address these issues in your city, town, and community:

  • Learn about the work of your local or regional Food Policy Council; if none exists think about creating a coalition to address food policies in your area. Agriculture is intrinsic to culture; work with local media artists, students, and community members to record and document food and agriculture traditions, highlighting variety and diversity.
  • Partner with a community organization working with a low-income community to sponsor a dinner and evening  program to talk about health concerns, food access, and local projects addressing these issues. A screening of FRESH is a perfect kick off to such an event!
  • Join (or start) local efforts to support low income community members to grow their own food through community gardening, garden education, and backyard gardening programs. Make sure your farmers market accepts food stamps.

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