By Daniel Smith

One thing Louisianians of all stripes seem to be proud of is our food, be it Creole, Cajun, or Soul Food. Most of the cuisine that is considered typical of Louisiana is not the healthiest of foods. On the other hand, Louisiana has an amazing growing season, and when I worked in fine dining in New Orleans we were able to boast about our fresh local produce, from Vidallia Onions and Creole Tomatoes to strawberries, blueberries, and figs. This post is a bit disorganized, but represents my thoughts on food and some interesting local initiatives that people can take to simultaneously improve quality of our communities and the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Nutrition and Poverty

A recent entry on Facing South confirmed something I’ve known about for a long time, namely that Southerners tend to eat less healthily than the rest of the nation. “Supersizing the South” is a good read full of useful information. The piece begins with statistics about the number and nature of food advertisements targeted towards children, presents a state by state breakdown of obesity in the South, and finishes by quoting the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which says that “the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the least education.”

While that may sound counterintuitive to some (poor kids are supposed to be skinny, right?), it stems from the lack of education and availability of nutritious foods. Moreover, foods (perceived) to be cheaper are often higher in fat and added sugar. Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally more expensive and require more preparation than Easy Mac and Hamburger Helper. Healthy children also perform better in school (food for thought).

I remember reading a testimonial around Thanksgiving written by an intelligent disabled woman. Like many other women in her apartment complex (mostly single mothers), she took advantage of deliveries from the food bank. The woman was older, and had learned to cook before the TV Dinner revolution of the Fifties had completely reversed American eating habits by the Seventies. She described how the younger mothers didn’t know what to do with bags of flour (make biscuits and broth) and didn’t know how to salvage slightly old vegetables into soups. A large part of the problem is simple lack of knowledge about how to cook a nutritious family meal with limited resources and time. The author suggested cooking classes to go with Food Bank deliveries.

  • Farmers Markets

Farmer’s Markets are reasonably popular in many cities, even in Louisiana. Most of us are familiar with the concept: once a week local farmers meet to sell local produce at a competitive cost. They generally benefit the smaller farms. According to an article about the Louisiana Small Farm Survival Fund at Foundations of Recovery, “farmers and small agricultural-related enterprises have been the foundation for our South Louisiana foodshed. The Farmers Markets who support locally grown, seasonal produce provide both an economic base and an important cultural gathering spot, creating a sense of community between urban and rural residents. Unfortunately, many farmers and local Farmers Markets sustained significant damage during Hurricane Katrina.”

The Louisiana DOAF Farmers Market Directory (2005) completely catalogs the local farms and Farmers Markets qualifying for the Farmers Market Nutritional Program Coupon. In Rapides, only three roadside stands (Bayou Rapides Best Produce on Hwy. 28, Ole Grey Mule on Hwy. 71 South, and Poole Produce past Cheneyville on 71) and no Farmers Markets are listed.

On Google Maps there is a listing for a Farmers Market at 500 N 3rd Street, and also a different address and phone number for Farmers Market Booking. Digging deeper, one comes across this interesting tidbit in the Wikipedia entry for John K. Snyder, a former mayor of Alexandria: “One of his pet projects was a simple structure near the Red River, completed in 1975, called the ‘Alexandria Farmer’s Market,’ by which farmers could take their produce directly to the people and avoid middlemen. Interest in the market was strongest in the spring and early summer, but many in time found the hours of operation inconvenient for their own work schedules. Supermarkets were just more accessible than were the farmers waiting patiently for customers to arrive.”

Because the Farmers Market must be supported by proactive consumers who are willing to deal with seasonal availability and the lack of Kroger-style convenience, they are not always successful.
Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m way out of the Alexandria loop; I’ll be back at the end of July), but my feeling is that the city still owns the defunct Farmers Market facility and rents it out for events like motorcycle shows.

An encouraging sign is the River City Market under the old Weiss and Goldring building, which Cenlamar describes as “downtown Alexandria’s arts, crafts, and produce market.”

  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA farming)

Community Supported Agriculture has gained traction in the North, Midwest, and the Northwest. It’s a revolutionary concept that grew out of a desire to reconnect consumers to local agriculture. Essentially, a small farm sells fifty to 500 shares of its harvest before planting to raise capital. Throughout the harvest season (which differs from place to place), it delivers boxes of fresh produce to a distribution center or directly to shareholders doorsteps. For a few hundred dollars, shareholders are provided weekly with fruits and vegetables. The food is often organic, always fresh, uses little fuel to be delivered, and is cheaper overall than shopping at the supermarket.

The Organic Consumers Association has an extremely informative article about CSA farming, both on the individual and network scale. A small farm often doesn’t have the resources to provide everything a shareholder may want, so a CSA cooperative (or “connection channel”) could take the role of coordinating produce from a number of local farms in order to best deliver goods without growing into corporate superfarms. They list all the advantages of Community Supported Agriculture:

The farmer benefits too. The connection channel bypasses the middleman, giving farmers profit margins more comparable to the farmers market. The farmer can retain a higher portion of the final selling price while bringing the cost to the consumer more in line with conventional agricultural products, thereby reaching more people. Advance ordering and knowledge of member preferences fine-tunes the planting process, reducing the farmer’s risk of spoilage, surplus production, storage costs, and missed sales. With a pay-in-advance policy, the farmer gets the capital needed for planting and improvements. Most important of all, the connection channel can produce organic food in quantities sufficient to feed the earth’s population while avoiding the social costs of industrial production and distribution. Instead of scaling up existing organic farms, one multiplies their number, and uses an extended CSA model to distribute the product to local and regional populations. When properly administered, the connection channel can often deliver in the afternoon what was harvested that morning, providing a field-to-fork time that no hub-to-retailer system can match.

Towards the end of the article they discuss the how to determine the proper number of shareholders for a given CSA farm.

It took a while, but I was able to find two examples of organic and CSA farms in Louisiana, provided by the Southern Organic Resource Guide.

Russell Roy is the proprietor of Pastime Farms, the largest organic farm in the state, in Roseland, Louisiana. He makes his own compost, uses organic pest control, and has over four-hundred members in his CSA. From May to November, Pastime Farms delivers weekly produce picked no more than thirty-six hours before.

Paul and Maria Davidson are wildlife biologists (“learned folk”) that began EquiTerra Farm decades ago in Clinton, Louisiana. The farm was slow-going, but they’ve expanded it to grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and they even have goat and sheep herds (which is something I’ve always wanted). The Davidsons’ goal is to have “a model sustainable farmstead to show others, especially young farmers, that a decent and honest living can be made on a small farm, working with the land and not against it.” Young people intern at the farm to increase interest in the project.

I was telling a friend from Rochester that a CSA farm could work in Alexandria, but enough people interested in buying shares outright might be difficult to find. She was surprised: “Being healthy markets itself!” I explained that Central Louisiana is unlike California and New York in that everyone is not totally motivated to eat fresh, organic foods. It’s usually a priority of the professional class.

And I realized that while CSA is an awesome idea and that it will definitely work in Louisiana once small savvy farms can be found, it only provides the most educated or well-off with an opportunity to score fresh local produce. It would need to be heavily tweaked to make even a tiny impact on the issue of poverty and nutrition.

  • Community Gardening

Community Gardens are a nice way to bring neighborhoods together while emphasizing social responsibility and nutrition. The model is flexible, but they usually are in a common space, and individual community members are able to utilize the harvest in some proportion to the work or capital they provide for starting and maintaining the garden.

Parkway Partners of New Orleans has a very readable community garden introduction and guide, which even lists the addresses of active community gardens in NOLA.

If nominal start-up efforts and training are provided by motivated members or an outside organization, community gardens can be successful in any part of a city. They are arguably most needed in the poorest areas, and could provide fresh produce to them more easily than CSA farms.

I hope that other people find this stuff as interesting as I do. Comments and criticisms are always welcomed but seldom received.

3 thoughts

  1. When I was living in Madison, Wisconsin summer of 2003, my housing cooperative volunteered at a local CSA farm about 10 km outside of town. The farm family there were growing organic but weren’t certified because chemicals were used on their fields a few years ago.

    We got lots of nice greens for salad and sides, and actually didn’t have to do a lot of work, unless we really wanted to. They were an awesome couple, down to earth, likely to listen to music and have a beer while tending the tomatoes or picking cucumbers. I learned a lot about organic farming from just a few visits, and my vitamin and nutrient intake also really benefitted from the experience.

    There is also something to be said about spending a few hours in a field of growing food every now and again…

  2. This is a comment I received from April Goldman on the cross-post on my blog:

    “CSA is truly the shit. the farm i worked on in CO last summer was a CSA–and a CSA is actually not more expensive than weekly trips to the grocery. Amortized, the cost food for a summer is actually cheaper if you buy from a CSA. the problem, of course, is that you have to have the funds for 1 bulk payment upfront.
    however, many CSA’s, including Rancho Durazno where I worked, do time-shares– so you can pay half the normal price and then come out and work on Saturday mornings. not only is the food healthier and locally grown, but it actually is cheaper.
    like mike- i learned a lot of cool stuff and spent a lot of time happily watching things grow and drinking beer.

    “i think i told you my job this summer in Buenos Aires is designing and planting (organic) and “sustainable” (i use quotes because that is a nebulous concept as far as I’m concerned) community gardens in low-income neighborhoods through this group called Los Robles. it’s going to be pretty similar to a CSA except the starting costs are paid for by private donors (and maybe the government too? I’m not sure). I’ll let you know more details because i think the situation in BA right now is similar to Louisiana after Katrina– they had an economic crisis in 2001 (i believe) and since then they’ve been trying to figure out how to rebuild areas of the city that have gone from lower class to real destitution. and how to get good food to people in those areas.

    “so– more info. Los Robles does a lot of the gardens through the elementary schools. The gardens are on school properties, the schools use the food in the cafeterias, and the kids get education in the basics of growing food. Then people from Los Robles go to the kids houses and help families set up their own personal plots. I think so far they have something like 60% success rate for families maintaining their gardens 3 years after the initial set up.
    well– it’s a big project. maybe bigger than what you’re talking about for Cenla- but it’s totally bad ass.”

  3. This is the first day I have logged onto cenlamar in months, and I greatly appreciate your post, Daniel. I long for the days when crazy John K’s Farmers Market was fully functioning. In summer there would be vendors at every station loaded down with fresh squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, green onions, etc. It seems like a real waste not to use that facility for its intended purpose. (Lamar, if you read this, let me know if the COA inner sanctum has any discussions on the table for reviving the Farmers Market). I should give the River City Market another chance, but the last time I visited I was very dissapointed there was no fresh local produce offered for sale.

    I am working to transition to organic gardening practice in my own landscaping business. The benefits of composting cannot be exaggerated- we’ve done that for years. Now we’re testing alternative pest controls in our home garden and then applying the techniques that work in our commerce. Changing standard landscape indurty practice requires educating customers about sustainable gardening. There’s so much to know in this field, and it helps to get people excited about sustainable gardening/farming so they’ll pursue learning what they need to know. The lobbying and advertising of agricultural chemical and GMO seed companies promise greater yields to feed the world, but they cite research studies funded by themselves with a slanted objective. Still, it’s encouraging that the selection of organic foods offered at our local stores has increased tremendously, so there are astute consumers willing to pay more for healthy food.

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