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The Fertile Crescent City

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Helping locals grow good food is only part of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network’s mission

The New Orleans Food and Farm Network believes everyone should have access to healthy food. Since 2003, it has supported farmers’ markets and urban farmers with training and technical assistance, and in the year after Katrina, NOFFN created a “food map” that showed residents in sparsely populated neighborhoods where to find a meal. Recently, it helped launch the Hollygrove Market and Farm. Daphne Derven, who became the group’s executive director last year, talked to New Orleans Living magazine about the state of our city’s food system.

What is a food system?

It’s the grocery stores; it’s the farmers and distributors who supply the grocery stores; it’s the people who supply the schools. And then it’s the way the food gets into the home and how it’s processed. It’s like a transportation system or a power grid. It’s the entire system of food.

What’s wrong with our current food system in New Orleans?

This is a city, like many others, that has had a lot of changes over the years. At one point, there were many urban farms and there were all sorts of avenues to get food. There were open-air markets, street vendors and shops. We lost a lot of flexibility.

How different are New Orleans’ problems from those faced by other urban areas?

Post-Katrina—and some of this certainly existed before the storm—many neighborhoods no longer have easy access to a market. In New Orleans East, for example, there are 65,000 people and only one supermarket. The national average is 9,000 people per supermarket. But we are seeing a growing interest in cooking fresh food. We see small urban farms and various community food-producing projects expanding throughout the city. I think some of that is being driven by a broad national interest in what we’re eating and where it comes from. But some of this is also driven by our passion for food in New Orleans. It anchors how we live.

What is NOFFN’s role in building a stronger and more diverse food system?

We have been around since 2003, and our work has always been to ensure that everyone has access to wholesome, safe and nutritious food, the kind of work that is referred to as “food security.” We work in food policy to make sure that everything is in place to bring in the food. We work in education, training people how to grow their own food, teaching youth how to cook and teaching people how to have a career in producing food. And then, finally, we support growers.

What are other improvements that you have seen in New Orleans?

There is a huge interest in markets where people can purchase local foods. Hollygrove Market and Farm has opened. MarketUmbrella, which runs the Crescent City Farmers Markets, has expanded, so they now have three markets. Second Harvest, our city’s food bank, has moved into a new and larger warehouse. We see urban garden projects from Covenant House to New Orleans Mission to Café Reconcile to Wise Words Community Garden. Parkway Partners has all their community gardens going great guns. We have people contacting us daily who have land that they want to put into production. It may just be for their family. It’s not always to sell, but a lot of it is.

How did you get involved in this field?

You could say that I was born into it. I had family farms on both sides, and I grew up on those farms, all of which are gone. My passionate belief is that food is our first language. I believe it’s a way to connect on every level and that everyone should have food, as they say in Slow Food, that is “fresh, clean and fair.” It should be a celebratory part of your life, not a frightening part of your life.

How did you end up in New Orleans?

I came down here as a volunteer after Katrina. I had worked here quite a bit before the storm with various historic groups on their kitchens and cooking programs, like the Hermann-Grima House. Last year I was working in Oregon, when Dan Barber of Blue Hill, a chef I had worked with in New York, sent me the NOFFN job announcement. He said this is the job you need to apply for. I interviewed and two weeks later I was on the road driving to New Orleans.

How has the first year been?

It’s been absolutely incredible. This has always been a city that I felt had such heart and inspiration. From the Creole cream cheese to satsumas to the po-boys to the music to the art to Jazz Fest, you name it. I just love everything. Every day is exciting.

For more information about the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, visit www.noffn.org.