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.