When it comes to the quality of our food, we’ve gotten used to compromising. It’s a tradeoff we make every time we weigh our options in the produce aisle: fresh and healthy or easily accessible? Organic and local or affordable?
Here in New Orleans, as in cities across the U.S., it sometimes seems the choice is made for us by forces beyond our control. Schools and hospitals need to buy cheap, so food quality suffers. Families in food deserts need to buy groceries, so they shop at the corner store or gas station. With the loss of grocery store chains post-Katrina, access to fresh, healthy food is more restricted than ever.
Meanwhile, local growers and producers are struggling to get their products to market. They face competition from large-scale producers from out of state, leading many farmers and fisheries to throw out unsold goods.
It’s a paradox ingrained in the food system of our city, and a problem that no one is more keenly aware of than John Burns.
A New Orleans native, Burns returned to the city after Hurricane Katrina, determined to create a way to meet the supply and demand for locally sourced food. The result is Jack and Jake’s, a mission-driven for-profit business dedicated to providing high-quality, fresh produce from local producers to underserved communities within three days of harvest.
What began in 2010 as an idea has expanded to a network of more than 200 farmers and fishers and more than 350 customers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, including 22 Recovery School District public schools, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Rouses, Whole Foods, Breaux Mart, and restaurants owned by restaurateurs like John Besh, Adolfo Garcia, and Donald Link.
Burns’s approach is different. He’s not a competitor of food suppliers and retailers; he’s a collaborator and poised to be a leader in the great rebuild of the New Orleans local food system.
The next piece of his model is currently taking shape in the form of Jack and Jake’s Public Market, a 27,000-square-foot-space that will span an entire city block. The market is being constructed in the former Myrtle Banks School building at 1307 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, a move Burns calls serendipitous given Jack and Jake’s focus on bringing fresh, healthy food to Louisiana schools.
The Central City location also improves healthy food access to a previously underserved community and will bring more than 100 jobs to the neighborhood by the first of the year.
Like everything else at Jack and Jake’s, this market is something new entirely. To start, it’s more than a store. It’s a regional food hub – the first in Louisiana – that caters to wholesale buyers like schools and hospitals, as well as the average consumer, all in the same space.
Burns envisions it as a community hub, too.
“Most grocery stores invite you in, and they want to get you in and out of there quickly,” he says. “Here, we invite you in, and we really want you to stay.”
Hearing Burns talk about the market, it’s easy to picture the finished product. Each food department will have its own menu and full-service restaurant. Seating will be placed throughout the building, from countertops along the windows to outdoor tables surrounded by edible landscaping.
It’s descriptions like these that make the phrase “food hub” come alive. The produce section will span a city block. An on-site greenhouse will grow produce. A live holding tank will hold fresh fish and seafood. A training kitchen will provide cooking classes to the community at large.
Burns explains: “We’re not telling people what to eat and what not to eat, but through a lot of fun and social interaction here you can learn a lot about food … how’s it’s produced, where it’s coming from, what makes it special.”
For Burns, this is just the beginning. Even as chandeliers go in and French produce tables and refrigerators are installed, it’s clear that he feels he is building more than a market; he’s building the first step toward fixing a disjointed food system.
Burns also hopes that Jack and Jake’s will make an impact beyond Central City, beyond New Orleans, even beyond Louisiana. He sees it as an example for the rest of the country, what he describes as “a national model where people will look at pieces and parts of it that might work well in their own communities.”