Photograph by Richard McCarthy
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Once the Crescent City Farmers Market reopened after Katrina, it became a place of joy, hope and community, as well as a place to buy fresh food. In the center, the Office of Homeland Serenity.
Photograph by Richard McCarthy
The Plate

Rebooting Food and Community in New Orleans After Katrina, Part Two

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, many of the Crescent City Farmers Market team scattered. The community of farmers, fishers and shoppers we had built over a decade in our beloved city was gone.

My crew and I were allowed to recover some laptops we left behind ten days after the storm, but it was not a place we wanted to linger. The stench of diesel and decay coated the air. A once animated city was deserted of people. The only visible inhabitants in our neighborhood were the chickens, crowing and wandering into the streets without any care for cars. Storm debris was everywhere.

Indeed, when most residents were allowed to return to New Orleans October 1st, they returned to a stripped down city: dawn-to-dusk curfew, very little commerce, and no children. For the most part, schools did not reopen until January. (It was as if the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had been contracted to keep the city free of children.)

Grocery stores took many, many months to reopen. Ones that had good business-interruption insurance held off reopening as long as they possibly could. After all, if you’ve got shareholders to worry about, better not reopen until a critical mass of consumers return. It is remarkable how different the grocery landscape is in today’s Crescent City.

These decisions, like many other thousands of small decisions, set in motion heroic feats of localism. Restaurant chefs like John Besh and Corbin Evans were back cooking on street corners and in unconventional kitchens in a matter of days. Why heroes? In the Katrina zone, every decision mattered. All sorts of pre-Katrina complexities of life were stripped away and replaced with a rugged, DIY sense of obligation to community, to recovery, and to a return to normalcy. The reopening a coffee shop, for instance, became an act of love for a city damaged by storm and by thoughtless elected officials.

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A traditional New Orleans band plays to welcome shoppers back to the Crescent City Farmers Market after Hurricane Katrina. Photograph courtesy of Market Umbrella

Inspired by the chefs who were providing gathering places for returning heroes and diners, we farmers market managers marshaled our forces to reopen the market on what was traditionally a very busy and important market day: the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. This became a complicated undertaking. Where are the farmers? Do they have any products? Will shoppers show up? Who is in town anyway? The city felt empty to us.

With support from a small group of funders, we deputized a team of farmers, shoppers, and fishers to find our diaspora. Some inland farmers markets had kindly taken some in as temporary vendors, but other farmers lost their homes, crops and markets.

 The fishing families were in the worst shape, but much later, many of them rebounded via creative efforts to remake their businesses by something we called the White Boot Brigade, but the effort took months.

The primary goal was to restart the farmers market. We selected our location in the most highly functioning neighborhood, in Uptown New Orleans by the natural levee of the Mississippi River (a logical yet difficult decision that played out in many recovery decisions in the ensuing months and years with predictable results–ones that drew distinctions between flooded and un-flooded parts of town.)

The reopening of that first farmers market on November 22, 2005 made international and local news: progress from the flooded city. Reflecting back upon that moment a decade later, I am reminded of how our reassembled community had changed. With added confidence, we began to push boundaries with far greater purpose.

In January of that year, we had broken through the digital divide to finally offer food stamp shoppers access to farmers products. After Katrina, nearly everyone was on Disaster SNAP. This gave us greater leverage to introduce SNAP incentive campaigns and demonstrate the power of public subsidy to vulnerable populations to an otherwise skeptical community of libertarian farmers.

Also on opening day, Farm Aid, Oxfam, Slow Food and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives distributed seeds and checks to farmers whose livelihoods were thrust into chaos. This was huge: Cash flow during cash poor times!

The market, circa 2005-2006 was raw. Understandably, few products were available. Many vendors were hammered by the disaster. And yet, shoppers came in great number to see old friends, learn and share best practices to gut homes, fight insurance companies, etc.

If the city was grey and literally marked with trauma, the farmers market was colorful and it smelled of happy taste memories. Many shoppers would describe how they would venture into the tent we named the “Office of Homeland Serenity” just to sit and be reminded of how life could and would be eventually. Shoppers would sit, receive complimentary chair massages, enjoy chamber music and jazz, and sob. We also used this space to host journalists seeking stories from rural leaders (our vendors) and philanthropic visitors seeking guidance as to where might they invest.

We even started a campaign to advertise the market as the “Happiest Place in New Orleans,” complete with the sound of the unique mix of accents and cultures that make the city so unique:

Admittedly, the return of the farmers market in November 2005 was only one tiny step towards normalcy for a returning population captive to the forces of nature and bureaucracy. However, it did serve as an emblem of hope in an otherwise pretty hopeless time.

Through the public space of the market, we gained access to new allies and began to model new patterns of open-source cooperation with partners around the world. Odd as it may sound, happiness at the Market also triggered remorse. Can we enjoy ourselves when those without the resources to return are stuck in faraway places? Issues of race, class and the access to resources have and continue to eat away at the otherwise feel-good narrative of the comeback city. It is perhaps for this reason that the New Orleans Katrina story resonates a decade later.

At these moments of great trauma, the best and the worst instincts prevail. Riddled with contradictions, America needs New Orleans to remind it of its soul, its obligation to be there for everyone, and to fight the forces of nature and commerce that push us into a nomadic, homogenized existence.

Richard McCarthy has been the executive director of Slow Food USA since January 2013. Before that, he was executive director to Market Umbrella, a nonprofit group that mentors farmers markets. He has received several awards for his work to rebuild the food system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Find him on Twitter @RichardSlowFood