TIM ROBINSON

Margarine, margarine, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.'” Poppy Tooker recalls the months of food shortages after Hurricane Katrina ripped the Gulf Coast apart. “I could not believe there was no butter.” According to the New Orleans native, one unfortunate but little-noticed repercussion of the storm was the demise of dairy. As a food activist, she understood the heavily industrial process of butter churning, preservation, shipping and storage. But in light of her city’s rich culinary history–fresh collards, crawfish étouffées and endless okra–the dearth was particularly jarring. After “a concentrated three-day search,” Tooker found her grail–in Baton Rouge, more than an hour’s drive out of the ruined city.

From August 2005 until, well, now, thousands of city residents have been living what Pamela Broom, a food-justice advocate also born and raised in New Orleans, calls “the frontier life.” Richard McCarthy, who reopened one of his farmers’ markets just ten weeks after Katrina, recalls the shortages with a grim look. Privileged shoppers trucked to nearby Jefferson Parish for essentials, but “there just wasn’t enough anything,” he says. Early returnees picked through food bins alongside National Guardsmen with automatic weaponry. Volunteers plastered trees with Food Wanted posters, sharing news of a Wendy’s open until 5 o’clock, or an aluminum buffet at noon, courtesy of the Salvation Army. And as the city dried in the sun, the food chain began to reconstitute. “One woman started to make food on Fridays,” says Broom. “Just one thing–red beans or whatever–and the people started to come.”

Federal failures forced this ethic of self-reliance onto the city. Today, however, the question of where to find fresh food is no longer whispered along a community grapevine. More often than not, the answer is blooming in plain sight, from a bed in one of dozens of neighborhood gardens and microfarms that dot the blighted cityscape. These victory gardens for the twenty-first century produce no butter but rather fruits and vegetables that may yet change the future of American agriculture.

Helping to lead the urban farming effort is the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, established in 2002 as a means of coordinating the fledgling group of regional farmers and urban growers who were sending green shoots into a city already plagued by food and economic insecurity before Katrina struck. The summer after the hurricane, NOFFN rallied its membership to create a series of “food maps,” tips for the real-life scavenger hunt that Gulf Coast residents undertook to stave off hunger. Today the nonprofit is still “kind of like the doctor on call,” says Daphne Derven, executive director (Broom is deputy director). Dozens of nascent and existing New Orleans growing operations look to their policy and technical expertise for guidance on how to eat and what to grow: “We are always focused on food access–whether that’s how to cook and eat nutritiously, or whether that’s how to grow your own food,” Derven says.

But from a land use and agricultural policy perspective, the Big Easy is still the Wild West. Tooling around the wards of New Orleans with Broom and Derven is an exercise in blinking and missing: was that shock of green we just passed a vacant, weedy lot or a young garden staked with tomatoes and sunflowers?

For now, the answer is a tossup. In addition to the occasional microfarm, New Orleans is still laced with tiny bodegas and corner stores–Eat Well Food Mart, Circle Food Mart, Piety Supermarket–selling the fatty po’ boys and sugary packaged goods that crept into the local diet long before Katrina. The unhealthy snacks supplement the food at medium-sized retail outlets like Family Dollar and Save-a-Lot, sold at or beyond shelf life. And after the storm, even the discount chains shuttered locations along the city’s main thoroughfares. Big food stores were no different: the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain let a handful of locations lie fallow until early this year; the A&P sold its interests in 2007 and has yet to return. The local Wal-Mart temporarily abandoned its bulk sales model, functioning instead as a basic grocery store. In the hardest-hit, mostly black Lower Ninth Ward, residents walk or drive for miles to eat from what Broom calls, with a wry smile, “your typical rip-off-the-neighborhood corner store.”

Of course, the preponderance of “food deserts” in a city with centuries of agricultural history is deeply ironic. What’s more, the issue of food insecurity is intimately bound up with race, class and negative health outcomes. Looking at similar dynamics in Dallas, the author of a recent study in the International Journal of Behavioural and Healthcare Research wrote, “the typical no-grocery-store neighborhood has half the white residents, twice the black residents, roughly the same number of Hispanic residents, $20,000 less in median annual income and twice the number of HHS clients.” The consequences of this inequity are painfully evident in New Orleans today. In 2004 the state spent $1.3 billion on medical costs related to obesity. Nearly 60 percent of majority-black Orleans Parish residents reported having to drive more than three miles to a food source. One in five households, however, didn’t have access to a car.

“It is hard to imagine hunger and obesity existing within the same family, or even within the same person,” says Ashley Graham, Louisiana director of Share Our Strength, a food advocacy group. But such is the case in New Orleans, one of the poorest and least healthy cities in America even before the flood that left 80 percent of it underwater. Before the hurricane, cheap food was bad food. Afterward, it became difficult to find any food at all. Katrina’s infrastructure collapse is an example of the kind of food insecurity that may grow more frequent during this century as a result of economic, natural or biological disasters. But it’s inspiring that urban agriculturalists have turned uncertainty into opportunity. The roots of a real homestead farming revolution are now stronger in New Orleans than in perhaps any other city in America.

The banana and palm trees that ramble over vacant lots in New Orleans will not let you forget the city’s growing power. The peak farming season is a long, lush sigh, from late fall through spring and into the first half of summer. The subtropical climate nurtures traditional American vegetables and fruits, from tomatoes, squash, corn and beans (which almost everyone is growing) to blueberries (which almost everyone loves). The Latino Farmers Cooperative in Central City cultivates the flavor palate of South and Central America, drying huge bunches of cilantro into coriander in the bayou sun.

Little Sparrow Farm, run by Marilyn Yank, a co-founder and program director at NOFFN, grows peanuts and dinosaur kale. And in one backyard garden, atop the ugliness of a formerly “blighted and adjudicated” property, a woman named Jeanette Bell tends avocados, black pepper, sugar cane and mangoes. Among the fireworks of lavender and tarragon spraying the concrete below, I even spy a pineapple.

The incredible diversity of output speaks to the concerted efforts of many committed food activists and talented growers like Bell and Yank. But the high volume of microgrowing is also due in part to the opportunity couched in the trauma of 2005. “When Katrina hit, it really shook things up pretty dramatically,” says Scott Miller, a manager at Rouses, the only local supermarket to expand its footprint after the storm. “Variety was off, selection was off, the distance traveled was off.” Yet the rebuilding process has engaged green thumbs across the city. “For us, the aftermath of Katrina, coupled with the global economic distress and our place within that, has allowed us to be able to work on permitting and ordinances, the training part, the green jobs part,” says Broom. “You’re starting fresh.”

Paul Baricos is testing the new paradigm of food growing and sourcing deep within, in Hollygrove, the working-class neighborhood that rapper Lil Wayne calls home. The year-old Hollygrove Market and Farm, based on the successful model of Growing Power, a microfarm in inner-city Milwaukee, has a modest mission: to bring more fresh fruit to the low-income, mostly black neighborhood. “That was and is our number-one priority,” says Baricos, who ran a short-lived community farmers’ market before starting the farm and store. In addition to the fresh produce–sourced from within and without city limits–the compound’s “demonstration beds” are staffed by master gardeners, who teach residents how to grow peppers and squash from their own porches.

Though only 15 to 20 percent of the market’s customers actually live in Hollygrove, those who do appreciate the investment. “It’s extremely well received because it’s coming from within the neighborhood,” says Alicia Vance, a NOFFN community organizer. “It could be a car dealership, but it’s not–it’s a market.”

Naturally, the Hollygrove model represents “a very innovative approach to the way they’re using an existing parcel of land,” Derven says. It is also, he points out, a means to connect with a community otherwise disinclined to buy into slow-foodism. Other urban farmers, like Joe Brock, have crafted equally ingenious solutions to the problem of a concrete jungle. His Mid-City Community Garden uses raised and irrigated planters to seed cucumbers and tomatillos atop the asphalt. Like Brock’s, most of the gardens I visit are relatively new–begun in 2007 or 2008–and were formed in direct response to the extreme lack of food access in post-Katrina New Orleans. This alone distinguishes the city from other sites of trendy food-justice and sustainability movements.

But will this model–carving out the space, time and backache required to raise grocery-quality fruits and veggies–prove scalable for the millions of American eaters who have also been left adrift?

The question is primarily economic in nature. During World War II, 20 million citizen gardens were producing roughly 16 billion pounds of food. That’s far less than the 350 billion pounds now available annually in the United States. But today’s small-scale growers are trying to make every harvest count twice: as nourishment and as savings. “It’s the epitome of a community effort,” says Phillip Soulet, who co-farms a plot just beneath the I-10 expressway, which churns through the city center. For families struggling in the ongoing recession, “a basket of fresh produce…helps them not only financially but nutritionally.” Though the microfarm has reduced his food budget by an estimated 50 to 60 percent, Soulet is concerned about the economy of his efforts. “I’m on this borderline size,” he says, walking the chicken run that helps fertilize his shaded plots, “where I can’t produce a huge amount to take to market, but it’s certainly enough to share.”

Other city growers have also found it difficult to make money and to make a difference. Baricos spends around $14,000 monthly on fresh produce, which he sells to several hundred customers each month in food boxes that cost $25 each and include roughly a dozen different items. For families in the neighborhood, the price is a (nutritious) steal–but the work hasn’t turned a profit: “Right now we’re just in survival mode,” he says.

This movement also relies upon behavioral change. Thankfully, the cause of nutrition, food justice and urban gardening seems to have found an A-list advocate in Michelle Obama. But changing the way America eats is a complex challenge, one that will require more than mere observation of the Obamas tending the herbs, fruits and arugula in the new organic White House kitchen garden. While the first lady says that her initiative “gives the community an opportunity to come together around gardening and growing their own food,” she has assured food-policy watchers that “government also has a role to play.”

Indeed, a growing number of policy-makers believe that urban gardens in New Orleans can backstop a constellation of public problems, from nutritional disparities to unemployment to the daunting, ugly sea of abandoned stoops and stores in the city. Wynecta Fisher, director of the New Orleans mayor’s office of environmental affairs, has been a rare ally for a movement that has operated largely beneath the radar of city government. She says she “doesn’t believe in green” but sees urban agriculture as the kind of smart growth that New Orleans has achieved naturally for decades. “If you can teach someone a skill, and also teach them to look at farming as an entrepreneurial thing, then it’s a win-win,” she says. “It’s a sneaky way to get a triple bottom line.”

Market Umbrella, a farmers’ market and food-policy center, has been trying to crack this nut since 1995. The twice-weekly markets are cheery re-creations of what executive director Richard McCarthy describes, with reverence, as “a 6,000-year-old tradition.” Their sellers hail from regional hamlets like Mandeville and Mount Hermon, and they grin as they discuss the importance of a steady income in a recession. On a recent morning in the mixed-income neighborhood that hosts the markets, McCarthy munches blueberries with a deadly serious mien. “[Farmers’ markets] are thought of as thrown together, informal and anarchic,” he says. “But it’s really good economic development strategy that bridges rural and urban supply and demand.”

As one of the first movers and earliest returners after Katrina, Market Umbrella has been able to set up a sustained data-gathering system for the cycle of supply and demand in New Orleans. Its transaction research evaluates how and when and what consumers consume, attempting to “speak the same language of the grocery stores,” says McCarthy, for maximum political influence. And it has created best practices for other local food advocates to follow: in order to combat the digital divide created when the Department of Agriculture’s food stamp program went paperless, it established a token system that allows shoppers to pay with EBT credits–drawing in underserved or untraditional marketgoers.

With NOFFN, the New Orleans farming collectives have realized that urban agriculture necessarily returns to matters of local and federal lawmaking, from school nutrition to smart zoning provisions. And increasingly, land use is becoming the dominant consideration in the equation–raising touchy questions of ownership, gentrification and eminent domain.

In Hollygrove, Broom and Derven point out empty homes spray-painted with a telltale “X” left over from the search for Katrina’s dead. Four years after the storm that exiled more than 200,000 residents, 65,888 of these vacant lots remain (in terms of residential blight, the city is second only to Detroit). Yet, in Derven’s eyes, the disemboweled homes hold great potential. “People talk about economies of scale,” she says. “Even if a proportion of those lots go into [food] production, that’s quite an impact.”

In November 2005 the Urban Land Institute prepared a report tacitly encouraging this new vision for New Orleans: it drew a palette of dense urban areas separated, into parts, by waves of green. Some planners and anthropologists believe urban farms can provide a transitional use for the otherwise vacant lots that Katrina left behind (there is even evidence that certain plants might detoxify the storm-tainted soil). “The civic benefits, the safe space, that surround urban farms might actually attract new development,” says Mary Rowe, founder of the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation.

Others, however, view the whole movement as a costly indulgence, anathema to more traditional investments. “I’ve got to convince my boss and the city council that this is as important as passing a crime-zone bill,” says Fisher. “We have had to tread very, very lightly.”

Returning land to seed is particularly problematic in New Orleans–vacated not by foreclosures or manufacturing loss but by accident. In the decimated Broadmoor and Lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods, that is “definitely part of the conversation and the concern,” says Broom. “You’ll get people saying, Why don’t you focus that attention on bringing the people back?”

This question prompts an uncomfortably circular logic: because food and other amenities are still scarce, so are residents. While New Orleans’s empty stoops suggest a new frontier, the political dysfunction still gripping the city impedes efforts to expand the narrow palate and poor nutrition of those who have returned.

“You look at this land, and farming should be easy–you till it, you divide it and you farm it,” says Peter Nguyen, gazing at a series of relief maps of New Orleans East in a community center housed in a local strip mall. “But it’s never that simple.” Fully 90 percent of this heavily Vietnamese part of the city grew and sold the basil, daikon and other vegetables so basic to Vietnam’s cuisine, in open markets right on the bayou. Today, Nguyen’s Viet Village farming collective is trying to restore the astonishing network of community gardens that were there before the storm. Nguyen’s group hopes to convert twenty acres of wetlands into an organic production farm, but legal battles for property rights and appropriate permitting for the swampland have soured him on the potential for meaningful community development. “People ask why New Orleans hasn’t redeveloped,” he says, “and it’s because of this.”

Such barriers to entry are numerous and arbitrary: farmers’ markets are not covered by zoning law; growers can’t sell food straight from a garden plot; fledgling horticulturalists “don’t have the resources to shape public policy at the state level,” says McCarthy. There have been successes, like a city food charter drafted by the grassroots New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee. But Tooker notes that despite the interdisciplinary challenges surrounding food security, state and local government are essentially absent from the conversation: “I never saw or heard of anything from the city, state or federal government that affected food access in New Orleans,” she says. “Just like with everything else, all the recovery work was done by individuals and nonprofits who just took the bull by the horns and did it.”

Given the still-shocking dearth of rebuilding and recovery in the city, years removed from the “heckuva job” by the federal government, the volume and coordination of activity surrounding urban farming is outstanding. And while the open wound of Katrina has become an opportunity to leap forward and lead, nearly all the growers, volunteers, organizers and policy specialists I spoke with in New Orleans believe the future of urban agriculture will be as much a matter of reversion as of revolution. “This is a city of food; our heritage is food here,” says Broom. “There still was and is a lot of people who have direct roots to rural communities and to the earth.” Hence the NOFFN slogan: “Growing back to our roots.”