This month News One rated New Orleans the country’s #1 “worst food desert,” while Travel + Leisure simultaneously put the Big Easy at the top of their list of “America’s Best Cities for Foodies.” Marianne Cufone, Executive Director of Recirculating Farms Coalition, a group that promotes local community-based food initiatives, notes that such a paradox is occurring in many cities across the U.S., “While restaurants serve a wide array of exciting, enticing dishes, much of the local community struggles to find affordable, healthy food.”
New Orleans has always been a magnet for food-lovers the world over who are looking to find a taste of the local Creole and French cuisines, as well as those influenced by the Spanish, Italian, Native American, Cajun, Chinese, Cuban and African cooking customs. To go from a white table cloth meal of, say Oysters Rockefeller at the French Quarter’s internationally-renowned Antoine’s or a haute Creole culinary experience at the trendy Warehouse District’s Meson 923, to one of New Orleans' food deserts in the Lower Ninth Ward, Treme or Village de L'est provides a stark contrast.
A community is considered a food desert if residents have few food options aside from highly processed, high-fat foods at convenient stores or fast food chains. New Orleans was given the distinction of worst food desert by News One because the Congressional Hunger Center states that before Hurricane Katrina, 30 grocery stores served residents as opposed to the current 20 stores. Now the average New Orleans grocery store supplies 16,000 people, double the national average.
Not only does this situation strain the few stores that do exist, but it also decreases spending within the local economy by forcing New Orleanians to use their food dollars outside their own communities. City residents spent roughly $383 million (out of $915 million total grocery purchases) in New Orleans neighborhoods other than their own, according to the SocialCompact study of New Orleans supermarket needs conducted at the request of O.C. Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association. Carolina Valencia, SocialCompact’s director of research told the New York Times, “Healthy food creates more jobs and more foot traffic, which help local businesses. It increases the home values of neighborhoods.”
Considering 60 percent of New Orleanians claim that during certain months they must decide among either paying utility bills or purchasing food, the divide between foodie haven and food desert hub remains wide. So while the city’s economy-at-large benefits from drawing in visitors due to its unique, rich food scene of everything from beignets to jambalaya – the city’s food-security-at-risk neighborhoods are in need of some attention, specifically hyper-local food solutions that would help to bolster local food economies, address diet related diseases associated with food deserts and provide residents in need with access to real food.
The city is already cultivating many of these solutions within their burgeoning local food movement in the form of urban farms, community gardens, school garden programs, backyard gardeners, etc. With a combination of these individuals, local food justice organizations like New Orleans Food & Farm Network and restaurants like Commander’s Palace who support local agriculture, the city appears to be slowly bridging the gap.
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.