By Tina Dirmann
BCBSLAF staff writer
During a recent visit to the Creole Market in Iberia Parish, we were reminded that social change doesn’t only begin in major cities, led by power players with big bucks and influence. Sometimes, real change happens in a small town, where community ties are strong and a simple recognition that “we can do better” permeates the air.
In a parish where roughly 30% of residents can be classified as obese, who would expect a surge of community support for a new farmers market? But as we walked the market’s grounds last week, we noticed the long line to buy fresh shrimp, the tents bustling with customers clamoring for fresh greens (including some out of the box produce for most of us southern types — bok choy, anyone?).
And there it was, right before us, in this swarming market – a community in the grips of change.
Special guest Dylan Ratigan, author and media commentator turned sustainability entrepreneur, took note in the moments after a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the market for business: “I think this kind of change, in how we live and what we eat, will come from small towns in places like Louisiana, not places like New York and California. It’s not uncommon for coastal communities to look down their nose at the culture and attitudes of small town America. But they are
the ones that will follow what’s happening here… And when this kind of cultural change begins to manifest in unexpected places, it introduces the possibility that it can happen anywhere.”
Addressing the crowd earlier, Ratigan said, “This market is an inspiration to me. Thank you for providing me with the inspiration I need to keep doing what I’m doing and understand the global impact local actions can have.”
And it is a huge cultural shift to think and eat differently here in Louisiana, where we love to live large and eat large. Our traditions are steeped in celebrations that involve foods wrapped in fats and fry and sodium. Know how much sodium is packed into a basic crawfish boil? Don’t ask…
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And at the Creole Market, a project partially funded with Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant dollars, it’s evident New Iberians get that.
We watched a local lady sit next to her mother, enjoying a freshly prepared salad.
“See how much fresher this tastes,” she told mom, diving into a plate of farm fresh greens, drizzled in a dressing made from locally grown cane syrup. “The greens stay crisp and don’t get all soggy, like the store bought stuff does.”
In fact, this is the second farmers market to take hold in Iberia Parish. Challenge Grant dollars also helped fund the Delcambre Seafood & Farmers Market last May, all part of the West End Health & Wellness Project (focused on revitalization efforts within the West End of New Iberia).
Of special note – the region’s new hydroponic farming co-ops supplied over 400 pounds of fresh produce for the day’s event. We even took a moment to tour those hyrdroponic farms (the Heirloom Produce Cooperative, Iberia Community Garden Co-op, Sugar City Growers), run by everyday folks in the community. We saw simple backyards converted into spaces teeming with greenery. A series of hyrdroponic planters, set-up and lovingly cared for until they produced cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, green onions, strawberries… The food produced here will keep the farmers markets flush year round, while any excess is snapped up by area restaurants, anxious to provide a true “farm to table” concept for their customers. And “flash markets” have been set up in various neighborhoods (one day events staged spur-of-the-moment style to sell freshly harvested goods).
“The produce available through the co-ops will allow us to have a successful and sustainable market year round,” explained Mike Tarantino, president and CEO of the Iberia Industrial Development Foundation (IDF). “So if we have a cold winter, like the one we just went through, we would have very limited options. But with the hydroponic gardens, we can offer vegetables normally only available in the spring year-round… Already, this has been a huge success in our community. So huge, we can hardly keep up with demand.”
Said Phanat Xanamane, who oversees the Iberia co-op, flourishing on a small patch of land owned by his family, “The West End of Iberia Parish, which, I want to note, is also the poorest area of the parish, is leading the way in the green movement here. That’s really impressive.”
“You’re inspiring people,” responded Ratigan, a former host of The Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC, now dedicated to finding sustainable farming methods for food desert regions across the globe. “More than you know.”
Scenes from our day at New Iberia’s Creole Market and surrounding hydroponic garden: