9 march 2016
Buddy Bolden, Elvis, and the Blues:
It is my hope, as a food producer in New Orleans, to cast some light on the shadows at our dining tables. Our supermarket shelves may be full, but our landscape is empty. Louisiana is a national leader in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, incarceration, violent crime, poverty—is that relative to our lack of fresh food? I think so. Gandhi said that you could judge a nation by the way it treats its animals. And we can judge Louisiana by the way that one in six adults are hungry. According to the USDA, the top four of five crops grown in Louisiana are non-edible: feed wheat, soybeans, cotton, and feed corn. None of those should be grown in a state where one in four children are hungry.
Food has gotten farther and farther away from our stomachs, from our mouths, from our communities. We are no longer a city that celebrates its foodways, but its tastemakers. We buoy the tourist economy and promote our lions and witches; but the wardrobe is bare. Uber thrives and yet waiting for RTA is like waiting for Charon, for Godot: tedious and raw with remorse. Restaurants boom and supermarkets shutter. Dinner Lab collapses with $10,000,000 in capital weight, Whole Foods opens on the Northshore, and Good Eggs flees in the night; yet we can only allocate about $2 per lunch for our students? We are on a merry-go-round of consumption without a farm in sight.
But now is a time beyond blame. There has been massive, shameful failure which has led to our current womb of crisis—but maturity teaches above finger pointing. New Orleans needs cures, not more diagnosis. We must embrace truth before wisdom, now. We must begin renovating our soil and food system before renovating more restaurants and markets. The St. Roch Market received more than $4,000,000 in public money and not a dime went towards promoting or encouraging actual food production, but instead its hip consumption. More than $20,000,000 in public money went to the Dryades Market and not a dime went towards promoting or encouraging food production. The Whole Foods Market on Broad Street received a $1,000,000 public grant which is forgivable; yet how many locally owned or family owned grocery stores received that grant? None. If I miss a payment on my government business loan or student loan, I’d be crucified on that cross of gold. Let alone forgiven.
Demand for food will always be, but supply is a delicate, delicate web. Our tax money does not need to subsidize consumption, but should encourage production, encourage supply in a state with four growing seasons and some of the world’s richest alluvial soil. There is a dead zone the size of the Hawaiian Islands 50 miles from where you are reading this magazine. This is a direct result of Policy choices made on federal, state, and local levels: the dead zone and its pollution are a question of agriculture and, more specifically, of not eating organically: all the fertilizers and pesticides and poison that we put on our crops or that our livestock excrete is carried down our River and dumped on our shore. It then mingles with British Petroleum and Ship Island tourists. Louisiana contains 40% of the nation’s wetlands, yet we are losing them at a greater rate than any other place on earth. This is a state of superlative: as we imprison our people and as we lose our land—at the highest ratios in the world— we are sabotaging our very existence. And sharing that tragedy with tourists on Segways.
The plate is a mirror we indulge three times a day. And if we do not begin to value the content of that meal, rather than its glamor, then we will paddle soul-deep into Narcissus’ pool. No soil, no farms—no farms, no food—no food, no restaurants. Soybeans and feed wheat and cotton and feed corn don’t taste good even in the best emulsion. We have to dig beyond the plate to its ingredients. That starts in our Mayor’s office; in our high schools; universities; agricultural schools; restaurants; ballot boxes; churches; markets; our refrigerators.
Successful social movements do not wait prostrate for an epiphany moment of hope and change. Freedom’s angel is agency—the ability to do and to do not. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBT Movement, and De-Colonization were all born when policy—both public and private—failed. There existed a vacuum where we as a community failed our neighbors. Such cathedrals of justice were born in that failure. Assertive in their demands for equality and inclusive access, they provided what the government could not, or would not. The Food Rights Movement is even more potent, more powerful, more democratic: every one in the world puts food into their body. Everyday. There is nothing more intimate or generous or sensual as putting food into your mouth every single day. There is no better way to control your destiny than through nutrition. There is no democracy greater than the empowerment of healthy, accessible food. Because fresh, healthy food is a human right, not a commodified privilege. Producers and eaters must seek to re-align the paradigm and draw it away from consumption; we must begin again to celebrate production, to encourage the harvest, not fetishize the consumption and the fashion of consumers. We should stop sanctioning the renovation of bourgeois food courts and begin constructing organic farms. We should stop privatizing our social health. We should not apply financial solutions to human problems. Our city is predicated on serving others before we’re able to justly serve ourselves; New Orleans is becoming Disneyland with potholes and beads and cold-pressed juices. We are sure to curate the “experience” of New Orleans, but are incapable of the reality. Most fundamental is our failure to feed ourselves. It is sobering and bracing to understand that the vast majority of our city’s food—our religion—is grown thousands of miles away.
Local/regional food is, sincerely, better for everyone and everything: it sustains local jobs, local talent, ingenuity, and integrity. It wins on moral grounds and financial grounds and ecological grounds. Think about it: we do not import our music, our culture, or Mardi Gras. So why do we import our food, that most sacred altar in New Orleans?