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Katrina Plus 10:
Reflections on a decade of rebuilding farmers markets and community
Richard McCarthy
Executive Director, Slow Food USA

August 29 marks a decade since Hurricane Katrina roared its way on shore causing the largest infrastructure collapse in American history. There is so much to recount with this disaster, and so much of it is at odds with what we generally like to face as a nation. We don’t like failure and complexity, and Katrina has plenty of it.

However, it also delivers other themes: resilience, attachment to place, solidarity and civic engagement. And many of those themes were borne out in how people came together over food.

Forty-eight hours before Katrina overtopped the New Orleans levee system, flooding 80 percent of the city, I was putting up tents and umbrellas for the Saturday morning Crescent City Farmers Market. It was just another hot and sticky August morning: Farmers and fishers selling the fruits of their labor directly to the city’s shopping public.

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What began early as whispers by late morning had become increasingly agitated debates about the projected course of the storm. In particular, the fishing families voiced concerns that the barometric pressure readings were freaking them out.

Each stayed behind to protect their (otherwise uninsurable) livelihoods: boats, equipment, nets, etc. Decisions to remain set in motion terrifying series of events, like some of us being thrown into the swirling water when homes exploded in the eye wall of the storm, hanging on tree tops for dear life unaware of the fate of family members and pets.

After we closed the farmers market early that Saturday, I decided to evacuate with my family for the very first time. It began as a weekend in Baton Rouge, loaded up on farmers market food, and became four-months of temporary living in Houston, Texas.

Before the storm

For nearly a decade before the storm, we had created a regional community of farmers, fishers, bakers, chefs, public health advocates, and consumers devoted to a new kind of social and economic contract based on the experience of farmers markets. Admittedly this is a fragile set of relationships, farmer meet farmer; shopper meet shopper; etc. Built upon the animation of public spaces and a healthy balance between cooperation and competition, Katrina sent this community packing. When I spoke with many Katrina refugees (a loaded term), many described feeling lonely and mournful of their loss of community. They also felt that they had loss control over the narrative of their lives.

Remember, this was 2005: two-years before the arrival of the iPhone. None of us knew how to text and the local area code exchanges were effectively down. So, when we landed in our temporary new host cities and towns, we did so utterly unaware of where family, friends, farmers and neighbors had landed. Telephones were useless and few had laptops.

I became and remain obsessed with infrastructure collapse. Experiencing PTSD, I couldn’t sleep. My wife and I spent endless hours trying to determine whether our home had flooded by downloading clumsy satellite images from an obscure website. This was before Google Earth mapped our world. (If you need recommendations of engaging infrastructure collapse sci-fi novels, I’ve read nearly all of them in part because I felt as though I was living them.)

Very quickly, we reassembled the farmers market management team (thanks to a conference call line provided by a funder). We discovered we were scattered all over the country. The State Police granted us permission to re-enter New Orleans ten days after the storm to collect a couple of laptops, including the one that contained the vendor database. Back then our database did not live in “the Cloud.”

Upon arrival to the city, we encountered both chaos and order. I remember the National Guardsman from Oklahoma who inspected our credentials on Carrollton Avenue. He looked like he was twelve-years-old.

If the thousands of little decisions made while preparing for a storm are cause for reflection, consider the myriad of decisions that go into its reconstruction. This first trip set in motion a ten-week campaign to restart the market.

The Return to New Orleans

All of the Crescent City Farmers Market team scattered after Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005. We were allowed to recover some laptops we left behind ten days after Katrina hit, 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; however, this 18-month process of debris and demolition had only just begun.

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.

These, 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 to 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, etc.

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Inspired by the chefs who were providing gathering places for returning heroes and diners, we marshaled our forces to reopen the farmers 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 to be realized in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, New York City and in San Francisco. During these national efforts, one organization rallied hard: Slow Food. Similarly, the network of Slow Food consumers embraced embattled organic citrus farmers in Braithwaite, LA. who had fruit but limited markets. Hundreds of boxes of citrus were shipped across the USA to Slow Food members who purchased holiday boxes as acts of solidarity. Again, these were secondary efforts that could only take shape if athe emblem of presence could be restarted: the farmers market. 

The primary goal was to restart the farmers market. We posted online surveys asking which of the four locations would come first. To little surprise, 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 years later.

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 be, will 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.

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.  

A shorter version of this article appeared in The National Geographic’s The Plate in August 2015. 

Useful links:

VIDEOFrom Disaster to Dessert describes the complexities of restarting commerce on open-air parking lots ten-weeks after Katrina. In particular, Slow Food USA partnered with Seed Savers Exchange to provide heritage seeds to farmers who had lost crops and seeds; and cash from the Terra Madre Disaster Fund.

VIDEO White Boot Brigade Takes Manhattan describes the partners, logic and chaos of organizing a road show of wild harvest commercial fishers after Katrina. A story of entrepreneurial resilience and imagination, shrimpers reached out to key allies: Slow Food, Share Our Strength, Oxfam, GrowNYC, and others.

Crescent City Farmers Market. A decade after the flooded city dispersed community and commerce, it survives and thrives on the belief that successful farmers market are good for farmers, communities and consumers.


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