Blair Grocery in the Press
Nat Turner’s fraught economic rebellion in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward
A decade after Katrina, community farm aims to do what local government has not
February 8, 2015 9:00AM ET Updated 6:15PM ET
NEW ORLEANS — Before Hurricane Katrina, there were three markets in Mary Thomas' Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where she might have found shrimp to make herself a sandwich. But a decade after her five grueling days at the Superdome, there’s only Cajun Joe’s: a bodega surrounded by abandoned, blighted lots that on a lucky day has fresh food.
Despite the economic development efforts focused on the energy and tourism industries touted by local authorities, “We look like the storm just hit,” the 72-year-old Thomas says of her neighborhood. “They don’t want to give us anything, because they want us out of here,” she added, referring to the local government. There have been several attempts to gentrify her neighborhood post-Katrina — Donald Trump at one point was set to turn it into “a Las Vegas Strip,” Thomas says with a chortle.
At Cajun Joe’s, there’s little behind the counter other than chocolate bars, chips, cigarettes and a bucket of pickled sausages sold by a Chinese-American woman from behind a bulletproof case.
“You have shrimps?” Thomas asks. The woman behind the glass shakes her head. “No? Frozen?”
“I felt like eating a shrimp sandwich,” said Thomas, dejected. She has a little shrimp at home, but “not enough to share” with her daughter and grandson; her 48-year-old daughter moved in after suffering a stroke two years ago.
If she could drive, Thomas would go to the predominantly white neighborhood of St. Bernard Parish, where she says stores may take her money, but they won’t like it.
Alexander Borkowski, an intern at the urban farm and Tulane University senior, with goats he’s training to eat overgrown grass and weeds on blighted plots of land in the Lower 9th Ward.
Almost home and still empty-handed, Thomas stops at an urban garden launched in 2006 by Nat Turner, named for the legendary leader of an 1831 slave uprising in Virginia. This Nat Turner taught social studies and debate at New York’s Beacon High School and drew media attention after a row with school authorities following a trip with his students to Cuba. The trip nearly cost him his job, were in not for what he says was the support of the teacher’s union and his attorneys.
Turner is on the grounds of his farm, separating a donated pile of produce from a Whole Foods in Uptown New Orleans into that which remains fresh enough to eat, and the rest that will be used for compost. He has no shrimp farm, but he gives Thomas a bag of ruby-red strawberries.
Turner's project – Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) – was launched in 2006, and pays local youth to help grow produce to sell to New Orleans’ burgeoning foodie community. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is a buyer; his acclaimed restaurant, Delmonico’s, purchases arugula. So, too, do the restaurants of star chef John Besh. Just last month, Turner received over $300 in checks from local eateries in a single day. The small-scale production can rake in over $2,000 a week, but still experiences a minor slump in New Orleans’ short, typically forgiving, winter.
Serendipitous Humanist Service
Arugula Farming and Other Challenges in the Lower Ninth Ward
BY ANYA OVERMANN • 27 JANUARY 2015
Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.” Serendipity. This is the word that’s stuck with me after recently returned from a service trip to New Orleans.
Christian, like me an active member of Future of Ethical Societies (a growing movement for humanist youth throughout the U.S. and an affiliate of the American Ethical Union), took the lead organizing the trip. He contacted Nat Turner, founder of Our School at Blair Grocerywhere we’d chosen to do our service project. I began fundraising through Gofundme and, to my surprise, I raised $1,040 in just under a week (our goal was $1,000), and Christian raised around $300. So, with the funds in place, we got a total of nine people on board to make the trip to New Orleans. Five came from Philadelphia, two from New York, and two from St. Louis, including myself.
Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) is an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that seeks to engage and empower youth through the active and reflective practice of sustainability and food justice. The Lower Ninth Ward is a very poor neighborhood quite clearly neglected by the city and also the most directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina. This is the area right next to where the levee broke, and OSBG is mere blocks from the levee.
Nat Turner (third from left, white shirt) stands on a new compost pile with a group of OSBG interns, Americorps employees, and volunteers.
Nat Turner, a former New York City public-school teacher, moved to New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward on Thanksgiving Day, 2008. He didn’t know anything about gardening — “I could barely keep a cactus alive” — but he had a vision to start an urban farm that would be a vehicle for educating and empowering the neighborhood’s youth. He’d been making service trips to the Big Easy with students, but he wanted an opportunity to dig deeper, literally and figuratively, into the city’s revitalization.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2012
FOR SAM KIYOMI TURNER, TULANE REPRESENTS ONLY A FRACTION OF HIS INVOLVEMENT WITH NEW ORLEANS. WHEN HE’S NOT ATTENDING CLASS, THE UNDERGRAD TEACHES AND LEARNS IN DIFFERENT ATMOSPHERES — AS AN URBAN FARMER IN THE LOWER NINTH WARD OF NEW ORLEANS.
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS, TURNER HAS LED STUDENTS FROM HIS SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP CLASS ON WEEKEND SERVICE TRIPS TO OUR SCHOOL AT BLAIR GROCERY, AN INNOVATIVE COMMUNITY FARMING INITIATIVE AT THE CORNER OF NORTH ROMAN AND BENTON STREETS. HE IS UP FRONT ABOUT THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF THE PROJECT: “WE’RE ONE OF THE BIGGEST EMPLOYERS IN THE LOWER NINTH.”
TURNER HAS BEEN WORKING ON THE FARM FOR SEVERAL YEARS AND IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF DAY-TO-DAY OPERATIONS, FOUNDER NAT TURNER SAID. AN EX-NEW YORK SCHOOLTEACHER, THE ELDER TURNER SET OUT IN 2008 ON A MISSION TO REVITALIZE THE POST-HURRICANE KATRINA NEIGHBORHOOD THROUGH AGRICULTURE. TODAY, OSBG CONFRONTS MANY OF THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ISSUES THAT PLAGUE NEW ORLEANS.
THE PRIMARY GOAL OF THIS TYPE OF URBAN FARMING IS TO PROVIDE FOOD SECURITY: HEALTHY, LOCAL, AND AFFORDABLE PRODUCE IN AN AREA THAT THE USDA CLASSIFIES AS A “FOOD DESERT.” RESIDENTS OF FOOD DESERTS, A HIGH PROPORTION OF WHOM ARE LOW-INCOME, HAVE LIMITED ACCESS TO THE LARGE GROCERY STORES OR SUPERMARKETS WHERE MANY BASIC FOOD OPTIONS ARE FOUND. IN THE LOWER NINTH WARD THIS PROBLEM IS COMPOUNDED BY OTHER INSTITUTIONAL SHORTCOMINGS, PARTICULARLY IN EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT, CREATING A HARSH SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES THAT MAY BE UNFAMILIAR TO, FOR EXAMPLE, A TULANE STUDENT LIVING UPTOWN. THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION FOR FOUNDER NAT TURNER IS, “HOW DO WE CHIP AWAY AT THE CONTINUED MARGINALIZATION OF CERTAIN GROUPS OF PEOPLE IN THIS CITY?”
OUR SCHOOL AT BLAIR GROCERY, DESPITE ITS MISSION OF EMPOWERMENT AND MAKING CHANGE, IS NOT OVERLY DEPENDENT ON CHARITY. IT HAS CULTIVATED MANY MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL RELATIONSHIPS IN NEW ORLEANS TO MAINTAIN FINANCIAL INDEPENDENCE. AMONG ITS RESTAURANT PARTNERS IS EMERIL’S DELMONICO, A REGULAR BUYER OF THE FARM’S SIGNATURE ARUGULA. OSBG ALSO RECEIVES COMPOSTABLE WASTE FROM SEVERAL DIFFERENT ORGANIZATIONS, AND WORKS WITH AN OFF-SITE CATTLE FARM FOR EXTRA COMPOSTING AND GROWING SPACE. THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE FARM TRIES TO SUCCEED AS A BUSINESS DIFFERENTIATES IT FROM SOME OF THE OTHER URBAN FARMING ORGANIZATIONS IN TOWN, SUCH AS EDIBLE CLASSROOM, WHICH IS HEAVY ON EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING BUT NOT AS FOCUSED ON LARGE SCALE PRODUCE.
TO OVERCOME UNFORESEEN PROBLEMS, THE FARM NEEDS TWO THINGS: MANPOWER AND MONEY. THE MANPOWER PART IS WHERE TULANE SERVICE LEARNERS HOPE TO MAKE THE MOST DIFFERENCE.
“I THINK IT’S ABSOLUTELY VITAL FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS TO GET INVOLVED WITH URBAN FARMING AND FOOD JUSTICE MOVEMENTS,” SAID DOR HABERER, WHO WORKS WITH TULANE’S HOPE GARDENS ORGANIZATION SAID.
HABERER SAID THAT USING EVER-EXPANDING URBAN SPACES TO GROW HEALTHY, ORGANIC PRODUCE WILL HELP US BECOME MORE OF A RESPONSIBLE AND CONSCIENTIOUS GENERATION, AND WILL REDUCE WASTE AND TOXINS WHILE PROVIDING A WHOLESOME DIET TO THOSE IN NEED. FOUNDER NAT TURNER SAID THAT IT’S ABOUT “THE IDEA THAT A TULANE STUDENT CAN COME TO THE WORST NEIGHBORHOOD IN NEW ORLEANS AND DO SOMETHING PRODUCTIVE AND GREEN SIDE BY SIDE WITH LOCAL PEOPLE.” THIS KIND OF SUSTAINED VOLUNTEER EFFORT, TURNER SAYS, IS “WAY DIFFERENT FROM TALKING ABOUT ‘RACE IN AMERICA’ IN SOCIOLOGY 101.”
Summer 2011 - Jeffery Leuenberger, American Planning Association Louisiana Chapter
"Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) began with $12 and a dream of a young Minnesota native teaching public school in New York City. Nat Turner assisted in bringing approximately 1,500 youth to New Orleans to volunteer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but felt compelled to do more. In 2008, he relocated to New Orleans and founded the OSBG whose mission is “to create a resource rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development.” Faced with despair, poverty, high crime and dropout rates, blight and food deserts, OSBG utilizes internationally recognized models of success from Brazil, Growing Power, and the Edible Schoolyard to “grow the growers” to take the front lines in the good food revolution..."
Winter 2011 - Edible New Orleans - by Matt Davis, Photographs by Andy Cook
"Basically, I just love this place way too much to ever leave," says 16-year-old Anthony Johnson, a young man from the Lower Ninth Ward who has recently started working at Our School at Blair Grocery. He's standing on a vegetable plot inside a wire fence on the corner of Benton and Roman streets in the Lower Nine. As Johnson points to a three-foot-tall basil bush, some children who look at most ten years old ride past on their bikes...."
January 15, 2011 - New York Times - by Charles Wilson
"Five years after the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward remains largely a place where time has stood still. Lots where shotgun houses once stood are empty and overgrown with tall grasses. Gutted homes with smashed windows list to one side.... At his new farm of less than an acre on the corner of Benton and Roman Streets, he spoke recently of the reasons that brought him here..."
October 11, 2010 - Yes! Magazine - by David Ferris
Driving on Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward you notice the Magnolia Corner Store, Martin Luther King Elementary School, and a gas station. North of Claiborne, the view resembles a jungle. Thousands of lots remain vacant and hundreds more are neglected, overgrown. A mere 10 percent of the neighborhood population has returned since Katrina demolished New Orleans in 2005...Out of this landscape appears an oasis..."
August 27, 2010 - Time Magazine - by Phil Bildner
"When the levee along the Industrial Canal failed back in 2005 and the wall of water drowned much of New Orleans' Lower Nine, the area north of Claiborne Avenue — the poorest section of the neighborhood — was hardest hit. Not surprisingly, the stretch has been slowest to recover. Five years after the devastating hurricane, the area still does not have a supermarket or store that sells fresh produce..."