By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBSLA Foundation 

Marianne Cufone, Project Director for Growing LA and Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition.
Marianne Cufone, Project Director for Growing LA and Executive Director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition.

True, New Orleans is indeed famous for its culinary offerings. But astoundingly, this city, so rich in cultural food festivities, is also considered an urban food desert.

How is that possible?

In some stretches of New Orleans, among folks living away from the touristy hustle and bustle of the French Quarter, farm fresh foods and vegetables are simply hard to come by. Grocery stores are sparse. Farmers markets few and far between.

But the food landscape is about to change in a major way, thanks to a sprawling new Urban Farming and Food Center to begin construction in downtown New Orleans, near the city’s iconic Convention Center, later this spring.

“It’s a project that’s critical to the city because it attacks so many of the problems our urban residents grapple with day to day,” said Christy Reeves, executive director for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation. “Ironically, most New Orleanians are within easy reach of a great fried shrimp po boy. But farm fresh apples and broccoli and carrots… Where do you go for that when the nearest full-service grocery store may be a mile or more away? And when faced with that reality, it’s no wonder that New Orleans consistently ranks at the top of the obesity list nationally. The Urban Farming and Food Center will go a long way in changing the food landscape and providing the community with better options.”

And so last year, Growing LA became the winner of a $440,000 grant through the foundation’s Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana program. Growing LA, jointly organized by the New Orleans Food & Farm Network and Recirculating Farms Coalition, raised an additional $1.4 million in private funding for the farm, which project director Marianne Cufone describes as becoming a full-service nutritional community service center. We recently spoke with Marianne, who also serves as executive director for the Recirculating Farms Coalition, a nonprofit, to learn more about what we can expect from the new food center once it opens later this year.

Q:  Marianna, New Orleans seems like an odd place to plop down a farm. Why here?

A: New Orleans is one of the worst areas for food deserts in the country. Yes, it’s one of the best cities for food in America, but has the worst access for local residents accessing fresh foods. That really sealed it for me. That dichotomy when it comes to accessing food. Just because the rest of America comes to our city for fabulous cuisine doesn’t mean everyone who lives here has access to the right food.

Q: And why is that? How can we live in a town so steeped in culinary delights and yet be considered a food desert?

A: When you look at New Orleans, there are extreme differences in financial stability. So, you have people who are very well off, and people who are very poor. And that creates instability when it comes to food access. Generally speaking, there are not enough grocery stores to serve the entire population.

Q: That’s a little shocking to learn, when food celebrations underlie everything we do in this town.

A: There are 350,000 people in New Orleans, and we only have about 20 grocery stores. That’s 16,000 people per grocery store. That is crazy. And the stores we do have are concentrated in certain areas. If you live Uptown or in the Warehouse District area, you have Whole Foods, Rouses, Winn Dixie. But in the Lower 9th Ward, it takes you a couple of buses and a street car to get to a store, and maybe a store you can’t afford anyway if it’s one of the specialty stores with all their high-end products. So that’s the issue. We don’t have enough access to acceptable, affordable foods.

Q:  Tell us more about the project. What is a recirculating farm exactly.

A: The recirculating coalition came out of a desire to find a sustainable way to raise fish in the U.S., because a lot of the operations that have been very popular in the Gulf of Mexico are dirty and dangerous and not sustainable. But using a recirculating farm system, we use naturally cleaned, recycled water and, using no soil at all, we can grow and support lots of things. We can actually grow plants and fish together in one naturally re-occurring system, and that’s called aquaponics. The fish actually provide nutrients for the plants. So, it’s a closed loop – an entirely circular, water based growing technique. You have this entire mini ecosystem where the plants and the fish live off each other.

Q: So using this system of recycled water, and no soil at all, you’ll be growing plants, vegetables, and fresh fish?

A: Yes, that’s correct. And the idea is to simultaneously provide fresh food and also programs for the community.

Q:  What kind of community programs?

A: Like gardening classes for an urban setting. So much of our soil is contaminated, for a lot of reasons. Or we have small or oddly configured or rocky spaces to work with. With recirculated farming, you don’t need dirt to make a garden happen. And we’ll have other things, like cooking classes. And yoga in the garden.

Q: And I understand you’ll support a lot of these programs through the money you get by selling the foods you grow to the community?

A: Yes, the center is designed to be self-sustaining. We’re combining a market farm that actually grows and sells food with all these community features: farm to table cooking classes, how to grow at home, on site community gardens for people who don’t have space at home, nutrition classes, exercise classes… We’re looking to do a lot in the space, all funded by the revenue we generate growing selling foods on the farm.

Q: How much of a difference did winning the Challenge for a Healthier Louisianagrant make in turning this project into a reality?

A: It made all the difference. We had support from a variety of different places. But we still needed money for programming, staffing, construction. The grant? That is what’s made all of this possible.

To read more about the new Urban Farming and Food Center, check out an article on the project in the Times Picayune. And check back with our own Challenge Grant News site for more updates on the center’s progress in the weeks to come, including coverage of the official kick-off when ground-breaking begins!

Marianne Cufone is the project director for Growing LA, executive director for the Recirculating Farms Coalition, an environmental attorney, and a professional chef.