Lessons from New Orleans

Groundswell Community Liaison Kirtrina Baxter describes her experience at last month’s Community Food Security Coalition conference in New Orleans.

The role of black people and folks of color is greatly documented and heralded in the food justice movement and it was one of the reasons I was so excited to go to the 14th Annual Community Food Security Coalition Conference. There were several other reasons for my going as well. I wanted to connect with other food workers of color in this movement and talk with them about their experiences of growth, connections and allyship, inform myself about other work going on in the food justice and farming movement, visit and learn more about the local history of New Orleans, and answer a main question always on my mind which is, how do we engage everyday folks in our communities and get them to understand the positive impact of “real food” in their diets and lives?

As I planned for my first trip to New Orleans there was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Not only was this my first trip to the famed city of Jazz and center of African American culture in the US but also my first time at a conference related to food justice. I would be expected to network with farmers and other food workers in the country as well as gain a working knowledge of practices and procedures that would assist in the work that I am doing in the Ithaca area.

Arriving at the conference, I noticed there were many more people of color than I had expected to find attending the conference. The more people I ran into, thinking they were perhaps just guests in the hotel, the more at ease I felt with the representation of folks who looked like me and had contributions to give at this conference. In my first workshop alone, there were at least ten people of color in a room of about 40 participants. This was inspiring in itself, considering I had been reading and researching about programs with black farmers and urban gardeners for quite some time but had very little personal contact with these groups of folks.

The connections weren’t difficult, it seemed like every other person of color went out of their way to speak or show a kindly nod in my direction as I was doing the same to them. It was an inviting experience. If they had any feeling close to mine I would say that we were all excited to see so much representation and careful to make the experience positive for everyone involved in order that these connections could grow. We met groups of folks from Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta, LA, Boston, Philadelphia, Virginia, of course, New Orleans, and from right here in NY!

In Philadelphia, youth from low-income communities are growing vegetables and providing access to fresh produce to families who live in the food desert of West Oak Lane. In LA, a group had just petitioned to get a school garden for youth garden project in an underprivileged area; they identified allowing people to present and share traditional cultural histories around food practices as a way to engage the interest of communities of color. I met a woman from Virginia who is basically working alone to engage and educate people in the housing project where she lives in garden and healthy eating practices. She works part-time and has three children, yet understands the need to educate her community and is committing her time to finding the resources to ensure this happens.

In Milwaukee there is an amazing community development corp that has formed over the last 10 years in an old impoverished black area of town, newly under the stewardship of long-time residents and dedicated community members who have revitalized their community to the point where now there are tours going through their section of town to highlight the newly built houses, high production gardens, and even a small tree nursery. In NYC a group is building farmboxes out of recycled materials and providing schools and community institutions with the educational tools and resources needed to grow fresh organic fruit. Many of these programs and efforts were shared first-hand and are part of the network of individuals with whom we have connected to help keep us inspired and knowledgeable in our work in this food justice movement.
When I began to speak with others who were generally concerned with ways to introduce and educate communities of people who live in poverty or are making a low wage in the principles of good eating habits and sustainable living practices, I was immediately inspired to continue the work that we are doing around food access and education in Ithaca. Not only that, but I also began to understand the sense of urgency needed in our efforts after visiting the sites of New Orleans and witnessing firsthand the devastation and oppression that still sits with the residents of the 7th and the 9th wards. Only 10% of the residents in the 9th ward have returned.  This neighborhood is unique in that 90% of the residents owned their own homes, yet the community was still impoverished. They have nothing to come home to; houses are gone, businesses are closed and social service agencies have moved out. Schools are shut down with no indication of re-opening and families are cohabiting to afford the cost of newer housing being built in their neighborhoods. I could speak more on the atrocities facing New Orleans low-income residents but then this article would be twice as long.

Knowing that the work we are doing in Ithaca will help our area to be more self-sustaining in the face of natural or man-made disaster, and seeing the overwhelming effects of disproportionate economic well-being in the NOLA disaster, has helped to fuel my desire to ensure that everyone is included in this concept and plan for sustainability. For my part, understanding food to be a right and that basic rights should be accessible to all, and knowing that we have the resources to provide nutritious food in abundance in this country, gives me hope that people will wake up to the realities that some of their neighbors face and work towards making this planet a better place to live for us all.

What I learned from the participants at the conference that I was blessed to be able to meet and connect with was that change is already happening! The high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in our black communities are already bringing the issue of diet into the everyday arena. Doctors and social workers are informing more folks about the need for exercise and diet changes. Media messages abound about the benefits of a proper diet, and although there are even more messages pushing us to purchase food to the contrary, I believe access has been holding a lot of black folks back from making these changes. Lack of access along with proper nutrition and cooking education is a problem in our communities. But the answer lies in identifying key people in black and low-income areas who are already trying to make changes and giving them access to resources, information, facilities and funding to create the opportunities for education and empowerment in their communities.

To learn more about the Community Food Security Coalition, visit

www.foodsecurity.org. You can also check out videos from the CFSC conference at their YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/CFSCvideos