By Sophia Cross
The national average for grocery store access is approximately 8,800 people per store. In New Orleans before the storm, it was approximately 16,000.Post-Katrina, it became 18,000.
“So many grocery stores closed during the storm,” says Dr. Jeannette Gustat from Tulane University’s Prevention Research Center during an interview in November, “and people had to rely on corner stores, had to live off of prepackaged snack foods.”
Everyone knows the drill when talking about New Orleans and its famous food culture, but the story includes more than just the merits of Creole cuisine. There’s another, less tourism-friendly side to that story – the side concerning the abundance of food deserts.
Food deserts are the swaths of the United States in which it is difficult to access fresh fruit or vegetables and other non-processed foods to the point of being impossible. If you’re going to eat, it’s going to involve a walloping dosage of something processed, sugar-and-fat-laden, and completely devoid of any real nutritional value. Eating becomes maintaining the caloric content necessary to keep your heart beating.
In the time between Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the re-opening of Circle Food Store in 2014, New Orleans’ Seventh Ward was on the precipice of becoming a food desert. Brooke Boudreaux, daughter of Circle Food Store owner Dwayne Boudreaux and the director of the store’s marketing and business development, is apologetic when I’m finally able to get her on the phone. “I had to step out into the stairwell,” she explains as a prelude to our Monday afternoon phone interview. “Sorry – I wasn’t able to get a second until this afternoon.” We’ve had to reschedule once already, but it’s understandable once she begins talking about the vast web of responsibilities that her job entails; on any given day, she’s meeting with investors, developing marketing strategies, and still making time to stop by the store. Boudreaux seems relieved at being able to speak about it frankly without the need to tiptoe around corporate niceties. She is a force to be reckoned with, and she knows her subject well.
“Reopening Circle was an important part of bringing people back into the neighborhood after the storm” she says. “People would be trying to decide whether or not to move back and rebuild, and one of the first things they wanted to know when trying to make that decision was ‘Is Circle going to reopen? When?’” The store had a reputation as the only place in the area where you could reliably access fresh, affordable produce with the double handicaps of being both on a fixed income and reliant on public transportation, like many of the area’s residents. Without Circle, the neighborhood just didn’t seem worth moving back into; if they had other options, former Seventh Ward residents saw their former home as slowly coalescing into a wasteland. The desert was beginning to take hold, and there was a real fear of its permanence.
Dwayne began working at Circle, as residents of the Seventh Ward and other local neighborhoods know it, in 1987; he bought the business in 1995. However, Katrina forced the business to close its doors and, according to Brooke, the following years became a convoluted sort of response system in which things that depended on one another came together to form a gridlock: the store couldn’t reopen until the Boudreaux family could be certain that there’d be business, and the people who might potentially patronize the store wouldn’t move back until they could be certain that the store would reopen.
In the years immediately following Katrina, Boudreaux was fresh out of graduate school when she moved back to the city and settled in Gentilly. She saw firsthand the emotional as well as physical destruction that the storm had generated in the area that housed her family’s business.
“There were some people who were saying things like, oh, my dad took the insurance money and ran [and that’s why Circle hasn’t reopened yet], but most people who were angry weren’t just angry with us but at the city, at just about everything…You can’t take that personally. I think that just speaks to people’s frustration when it comes to the need of having a grocery store [that they can access without owning a car].”
The process of re-opening the store in the post-Katrina Seventh Ward became the planting of a seed in uncertain soil, with an entire community keeping their eyes trained on the dirt and ready to act the instant they saw even the smallest sprout. They waited, watched, and hoped for eight full years.
The store finally opened its doors again in January of 2014. There were former employees as far-flung as Texas and Tennessee who, having already made lives for themselves in their newly adopted states, returned for the Circle re-opening, a testament to the importance of the store as an impetus for repopulating the area.
Boudreaux makes a point of mentioning that Circle offers much more to its clientele besides groceries. Residents of the neighborhood can cash checks, transfer money, and use the on-site pharmacy, in addition to a myriad of other services – a vital thing in an area where many people don’t have access to an independent means of transportation. That, says Boudreaux, is what really makes Circle a backbone of the Seventh Ward.
Emily Posner, who runs the Seventh Ward Boys and Girls Garden, seconds this. “Circle Food Store reopening was a major step forward for the community,” she confirms. “And when it opened again, it was really incredible for the younger kids who had mostly just known the neighborhood after Katrina – like to be able to just go out and buy a bell pepper at the grocery store.”
The garden is another tactic to combat the problems that arise from living in a food desert. It not only teaches the kids in the neighborhood about growing their own vegetables, it introduces them to an entirely new realm of possibility where growing, preparing, and eating nutritious food is doable on a tight budget.
In my discussion with her about the potential health effects of food deserts, Dr. Gustat emphasized that this is an essential step for breaking out of the cycle of poor nutrition generated by food deserts, as many kids growing up in those areas never fully learn about proper nutrition.
“[Poor nutrition in childhood] also leads to major health problems later in life,” Dr. Gustat explains. “Even besides those associated with obesity – you can be of average weight but if you have poor nutrition, you’re still at risk for cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and even certain cancers.”
“There is hope, though,” is her parting statement. “There’s definitely hope for breaking the cycle.” Nutrition and gardening education is becoming a common practice in the area’s schools, and the ratio of people to grocery store is moving down to pre-Katrina levels.
The building that currently houses Circle has its bones in the 1930s, when the structure was originally built. Part of the struggle to re-open was to hold strong against offers to buy the land for redevelopment, which Boudreaux says were generally from people outside of the area, people without a real understanding of the neighborhood and its needs. Most of the offers were from housing developers, who saw the immediate need for replacing the houses destroyed in Katrina without realizing that without a neighborhood grocery store, no one would move back in to fill them.
“They talk about revitalizing the community, but they’re doing it in such a way that it’s not for the community that’s there. It’s for some ideal community that they [the developers] are imagining,” says Boudreaux.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money” she clarifies. She doesn’t want to begrudge a little healthy enterprise. But her concern, as well Posner’s, is that the neighborhood’s residents are so often shut out of the conversation entirely. This is what ultimately creates the conditions for a food desert – how the problem is thoroughly unfelt by those who don’t live in those areas. And those with the money to develop more housing in a community without a grocery store don’t, by definition, actually live in that community.
“Land ownership is an issue in urban growing across the country, but we’re in [the middle of] this growth that is happening at a very fast rate,” is how Posner describes the rising property values cause outside investors to flock to the area. This decreases the access that members of the community have to the land, and the agency they have in determining how their neighborhood is structured.
But Boudreaux also remains optimistic about the potential for change through the power of Seventh Ward residents coming together and making their voices heard: “It’s a matter of getting people to believe in your cause.”
In the Seventh Ward, at least, there’s finally an oasis again. And that’s a place to start.
Sophia Cross is a senior at Tulane University majoring in English and Environmental Studies.