Food security and its urban challenges

The experience of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina highlights the structural challenges involved in feeding cities. Here’s an excerpt from a story in The Nation titled “Green Shoots in New Orleans“, accompanied by a link to a TED talk with Carolyn Steele, titled “How do we feed a city?”:

Click image to go to the video on the Sociological Images blog

“Margarine, margarine, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.'” Poppy Tooker recalls the months of food shortages after Hurricane Katrina ripped the Gulf Coast apart. “I could not believe there was no butter.”

According to the New Orleans native, one unfortunate but little-noticed repercussion of the storm was the demise of dairy. As a food activist, she understood the heavily industrial process of butter churning, preservation, shipping and storage. But in light of her city’s rich culinary history–fresh collards, crawfish étouffées and endless okra–the dearth was particularly jarring. After “a concentrated three-day search,” Tooker found her grail–in Baton Rouge, more than an hour’s drive out of the ruined city.

From August 2005 until, well, now, thousands of city residents have been living what Pamela Broom, a food-justice advocate also born and raised in New Orleans, calls “the frontier life.” Richard McCarthy, who reopened one of his farmers’ markets just ten weeks after Katrina, recalls the shortages with a grim look. Privileged shoppers trucked to nearby Jefferson Parish for essentials, but “there just wasn’t enough anything,” he says. Early returnees picked through food bins alongside National Guardsmen with automatic weaponry. Volunteers plastered trees with Food Wanted posters, sharing news of a Wendy’s open until 5 o’clock, or an aluminum buffet at noon, courtesy of the Salvation Army. And as the city dried in the sun, the food chain began to reconstitute. “One woman started to make food on Fridays,” says Broom. “Just one thing–red beans or whatever–and the people started to come.”

Federal failures forced this ethic of self-reliance onto the city. Today, however, the question of where to find fresh food is no longer whispered along a community grapevine. More often than not, the answer is blooming in plain sight, from a bed in one of dozens of neighborhood gardens and microfarms that dot the blighted cityscape. These victory gardens for the twenty-first century produce no butter but rather fruits and vegetables that may yet change the future of American agriculture….”

Subscribe to “The Nation” to read the rest of this story online, or look up the Sept 21, 2009 issue of the print edition.

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