Making Groceries

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It’s Monday morning and the warehouse space behind Whole Foods on Broad Street is a hive of activity. 

That’s because the community nonprofit Top Box Foods operates out of the building, packing as many as 500 boxes full of fresh and mostly local fruits and veggies for pick up and free delivery to its customers. A typical $20 box might have bell peppers, celery, bananas, apples, onions, berries – most items locally sourced and equal to more than $40 in product if bought at the average grocery store. Anybody can sign up for a variety of boxes at any time and EBT is accepted. Add-ons from an a la carte menu can be anything from meat to honey and seafood. Regular customers help subsidize the group’s Community Food Share program which provides fresh food to neighbors that need a little more help. 

Connor Deloach co-founded Top Box New Orleans in 2013, modeling it after the original non-profit in Chicago, where he first started doing this work as a volunteer.   

 “I wanted to do this work, to participate in something that would make a difference in people’s lives,” said Deloach, 28, now the group’s executive director. When there wasn’t a spot for him to work full time in Chicago, he did some research, looking for cities where equitable access to healthy and affordable food was an ongoing problem. New Orleans kept coming up at the top of that list. Deloach had never been to New Orleans when he moved here at the age of 19 to start a non-profit, something else he’d never done. 


“There was two of us in the beginning, and we didn’t know anybody,” he recalled. What he did know was that mission-oriented work couldn’t steam roll into town with preconceived ideas as to how things should be done, and what the communities needed. “In the beginning we forged relationships with community activists and faith-based organizations that were already on the ground.”  

Reverend Willie Williams with the True Love Missionary Baptist Church in Central City proved to be the linchpin. Once he supported the idea, the ripple effect reached  many neighborhoods grappling with food insecurity, so called food deserts, where access to fresh food is difficult and cheap and less healthy fast-food outlets and corner stores prevail. 

Working in tandem with local community organizations and churches, Top Box builds strategic partnerships and delivery sites where members and neighbors can pick up grocery boxes with products such as fresh fruits and vegetables along with frozen meats, fish, and poultry. “If we make it easier for folks to get fresh food, they’ll do it,” he said. 

 

Food inequity 

Although it’s commonly used, the term ‘food desert’ can be controversial. Washington D.C.-based food justice activist and urban farming expert Karen Washington prefers the term “food apartheid” to account for the systemic racism permeating America’s food system.  

In an interview that ran in “The Guardian” in 2018, Washington pointed out that food desert is a term coined by people outside of a neighborhood, not used by its residents.  And the word desert conjures a bleak, empty and desolate place. These neighborhoods all have a vibrancy and social structure that shouldn’t be diminished, she pointed out.

Using food apartheid, takes race, economics, faith, and geography into account, Washington said. The effects of this food inequity have been tragically felt during the pandemic, where people of color suffering from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension were more likely to get COVID-19 and die from it.  

Early in the pandemic, in April 2020, Louisiana had the highest rate of deaths from COVID-19 in the nation and, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards, more than 70 percent of the people who had died at that point were black, although Black people make up just 32 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“When I moved here, New Orleans was very much a recovering city,” said Deloach. “Foundational aspects of the city – like grocery stores – had not returned after Katrina. There was a reluctance from bigger corporate food stores to invest in infrastructure in neighborhoods that didn’t seem desirable.”  

Economic and transportation barriers prevent a lot of working families from access to healthy food, he said. “If a single parent is working two jobs and living on a tight budget, she might only have time to feed her family less healthy options.” 

 

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Corner stores in the loop

Top Box works closely with Propellor, a New Orleans nonprofit that grows and supports entrepreneurs working to  tackle social and environmental disparities. Given that one in five New Orleanians are food insecure and one in four participate in SNAP, meeting these local families where they shop seemed to make sense. 

Enter the Healthy Corner Store Collaborative, which is hosted by Propeller, funded by the City of New Orleans, and operated by Liberty’s Kitchen and Top Box Foods.  

The idea for the program is straight forward. HCSC is a 12-month program that works with New Orleans corner store operators to maximize their business sustainability and increase the amount of fresh, healthy food they offer in-store. The program provides store owners with one-on-one business mentorship and technical assistance to optimize their business for profit and long-term sustainability.

The owners get a hand-up from a range of other resources, including the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, the Tulane Prevention Research Center, the Guste Homes Residence and the Food Trust. Located in neighborhoods across New Orleans, including Central City, Treme, Bywater, the Lower 9th Ward and Freret, the operators are guaranteed buy-back if the fresh food doesn’t sell.  

But it does – within the first three months of the program, Good 2 Go food stores sold 93 percent of all produce delivered, distributing 3,720 lbs. and generating $5,657 in combined revenue. Matt’s # 2 on Michoud Boulevard, DM Market on N. Broad, King’s on St. Bernard and Algiers Market on Teche Street are just a few past and current program participants. 

Increasing equitable access to fresh food in New Orleans is a driver for 2Brothers1Love, a catering company made up of chef/partners Byron Bradley and Davide Hargrove. The pair, who just opened Del Sur restaurant serving Afro Latin cuisine in the Catahoula Hotel in the CBD, also have a company called Homegrown Distributions. The idea is to create a sustainable farming model, contracting with a cooperative of 30 family farms in Jamaica growing ginger, cacao beans and coffee. 

“The idea is to sell fresh produce overseas in bulk and use the proceeds from that to introduce healthier product to so called food deserts,” said Bradley. The Jamaica connection came from one of their friends, a Jamaican-born sous chef how made the first introductions. “Farmers were struggling because of the pandemic,” said Bradley.  “The idea just mushroomed. New Orleans overlaps with Jamaica culturally in many ways. Two years ago, we had no idea we’d be doing this – but it falls within our shared mission, to use our careers to help elevate our community out of turmoil and difficult circumstances.”

 

Envisioning a place with healthy foods for all

In his work as a professor and director of nutrition at Tulane’s School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, Diego Rose is always thinking about food equity and access. Rose’s latest research projects examine grass-roots efforts to improve healthy food access in New Orleans and the environmental impacts of U.S. dietary choices. Rose’s research explores the social and economic side of nutrition problems, with a focus on nutrition assistance programs, food security, and the food environment. 

As a member of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, Rose and his colleagues have spearheaded programming to support healthy food retail in underserved areas. Affecting policy and furthering research is at the heart of his work. 

Rose, who called his current sabbatical a “staybbatical” because of COVID-19, grew up in California and has worked in nutrition, health and food access for most of his career. Connecting the dots between hunger in America and food inequity is something that he’s long considered. “When I moved here, I didn’t have a car,” recalled the professor.  “I noticed that there are a lot of neighborhoods without supermarkets. There’s not many choices if you don’t have transportation. And it just got worse after Katrina. Nobody had food access for a while.”

Stigmatizing a neighborhood isn’t the point, he said. The system creates unequal access to healthy food, it’s a systemic problem that has to do with race and racism and lots of other things. 

Working with growers, community activists and people in public health, Rose was involved in policy making that paved the way for supermarkets to be incentivized to reopen – Whole Foods on Broad Street and Robert’s in the Marigny are two examples. 

“There are a lot of new and creative organizations trying all sorts of different things,” he said. “Top Box is one of them. Connecting farmers markets to clinics is another example.”  Sankofa New Orleans is another impressive initiative, opening Fresh Stop Market in the Lower Ninth Ward, where 98 percent of residents are Black and predominantly low-income. The market provides fresh produce from local farmers and producers. 

Community solutions were making heartening inroads – and then the pandemic happened. “We took a step backwards for sure,” said Rose. “It’s been hard on everybody. But still there is creative work being done to address the problems.”

Although he doesn’t think we’re 100 percent back, especially for the many unemployed who are returning to work, things are slowly getting better. One change he’d love to see is to expand EBT benefits to include prepared foods from supermarkets. “You can buy soda but not a rotisserie chicken? That doesn’t make sense. If you’re poor and your wages aren’t that high, cooking dinner from scratch isn’t always an option. We need to come up with solutions to support these folks as they struggle to take care of their families.”

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They are already making a difference 

Changemakers understand that improving equitable access to healthy food is a grassroots movement that starts from the inside of communities and ripples out. The mere presence of fresh vegetables doesn’t address the root causes of inequity, so social and health services work in tandem to provide a holistic approach to growing  healthier communities Here are snapshots of just a few of the non-profits and businesses that are making a difference every day 

Tulane University Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine Housed in a stunning demonstration kitchen, The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University trains future doctors in hands-on nutrition to help them better heal patients and serve communities. These doctors in training in turn lead free community cooking classes – six-week programs so popular that there’s always a 300-person waiting list. 

Liberty’s Kitchen This café adjacent to the Broad Street Whole Foods is a social enterprise dedicated to transforming the lives of at rick New Orleans youths by providing a path to self-sufficiency through food-service-based training, leadership and work-readiness programs. The kitchen serves coffee, and light fare. There’s a catering option too – a great win/win for your next event.

24 Carrot Garden is a youth garden located in the St. Roch neighborhood on Music Street. They meet three days a week for garden upkeep, mentoring, and incubating entrepreneurial opportunities. The program is open to all young people and includes activities such as cooking, learning about plants, harvesting, feeding the chickens, and occasional field trips  toother local gardens.

FirstLine Schools This nonprofit creates and inspires open admissions public schools in New Orleans by providing a variety of rich experiences to nurture health, character, and active citizenship and prepare students for college and careers.

Edible Schoolyard New Orleans Based on a model created in Oakland by chef Alice Waters in 1995,  Edible Schoolyard Nola was formally founded post-Katrina by Cathy Pierson, Karin Giger, and Randy Fertel, first taking root at the Samuel J. Green Charter School. The garden is built by many volunteers, and a teaching kitchen is funded by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The program ensures that food education is part of core academics, underscoring the idea that children learn by doing and that health and wellness contribute to the success of the whole child. The program, incorporated in Firstline Charter schools including Arthur Ashe, Samuel J. Green and Langston Hughes,  teachers more than 4,500 kitchen and garden classes each year, with 97 percent of students trying new foods in the program – and eating leafy greens four times as often as the average U.S. student. 

Whole Foods  When the Austin-based supermarket chain opened on Broad Street in 2014, where Schwegmann’s used to be, the neighborhood wasn’t too sure that this “fancy” store was for them. Management worked with local community leaders and neighbors, delivering fair prices on produce and seafood and an expanded line of its 365 store brand priced on par with other locally owned grocery stores. Its Whole Kids Foundation and Whole Planet Foundation underwrites a slew of local programming, including health fairs at places like the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club and a summer camp for kids on the onsite Refresh Farm.

Sprout Nola This dynamic nonprofit works toward a better food system by making farming accessible to everyone. Partnering with groups that help farmers at every level, including LSU, Acadiana Food Alliance, and the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, Sprout Nola facilitates Grow LA, a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.  The group supports more than 30 community gardens, the building block of elevated food sovereignty for all. 

Boys Town Louisiana When children are at risk and in trouble, Boys Town Louisiana can help. Through a variety of Integrated Continuum of Care services, Boys Town Louisiana reunites children with their families, provides a Boys Town family for those with nowhere else to turn, and assists others at home, where they can remain together as families. 

Ruth U. Fertel Tulane Community Health Center Located on the site of the original Ruth’s Chris steakhouse (and named for the pioneering restaurateur), this clinic opened in 2012, providing behavioral health, pediatric care and a wide range of health services and amenities like a computer lab and a full-time social worker to neighborhood residents.  Exam rooms are named after musicians including Duke Ellington and Kermit Ruffins and photographs of Mardi Gras Indians, donated by Randy Fertel, decorate community spaces.

The ReFresh Community Farm This teaching farm on the site of the Broad Street ReFresh Project helps increase fresh food and includes on-site programs like Volunteer for Veggies, urban growing apprenticeships, and gardening classes for adults, families, and children. 

Wholistic Culinary Market in Circle Foods Led by chef Gary Netter, who came up with the Next To Each brand for the market, Wholistic offers six different food stands, a mini food hall with the emphasis on fresh, whole foods, including hot lunches and grab and go dinner choices to help families eat healthy on a budget. Netter, the city’s culinary ambassador, recruited chefs and makers interested in keeping it healthy. There’s Mannie King, whose Froot Orleans focuses on fresh fruit bowls, Adam Haughton runs Johnny’s Jamaican Grill with authentic island ingredients and flavors and Bissap Breeze is all about fresh fruit and vegetable juices, fresh fruit smoothies, and healing Hibiscus teas

Grow Dat This youth farming and leadership training program nurtures a diverse group of young leaders through the meaningful work of growing food. Each year the young growers raise 35,000 pounds of food, 10,500 pounds of which is donated to Shared Harvest partners.