Editor’s Note: The following series “Fewer Desserts and Deserts: Fighting Food Insecurity.” is a three-day series curated by Erica Casareno as part of the Digital Research Internship Program partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and digital humanities. You can read the full introduction piece that started this series.
New Orleans is a city renowned for its food and drink. From po-boys to pralines and from coffee and chicory to hurricanes, the Crescent City’s cuisine has captivated the hearts and tongues of local foodies and gastrotourists alike. Although food and beverage has existed as one of the largest industries in the city’s economy, a significant portion of New Orleanians struggle to access nutritious food. This grouping of articles explores some efforts to provide food security to New Orleans.
Hollygrove Market is an urban farm, local produce market, and community garden, which has been tackling New Orleans’ food security issue by providing affordable local produce to underserved New Orleanians. In the following interview conducted by My House NOLA and originally published by ViaNolaVie on January 21, 2015, Rie Ma, the Communications and Community Outreach Specialist for Hollygrove Market, talks on Hollygrove Market, food justice, and the New Orleans food community.
Located in the center of New Orleans, Hollygrove Market functions as an urban farm, local produce market and community garden that is bolstering local and sustainable eating in the Crescent City, while simultaneously providing underserved New Orleans communities with fresh, affordable produce.
My House NOLA recently spoke with Hollygrove Communications & Outreach Specialist Rie Ma about the Market’s mission, Ma’s interest in food justice and the differences between food communities in New Orleans and Ma’s former Brooklyn neighborhood.
My House Nola: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Rie Ma: I moved to New Orleans about two-and-a-half years ago from Brooklyn and have been involved in the non-profit sector for the last few years. My main focus has been food justice and food access, which is what brought me to Hollygrove Market. I first started volunteering at the market and then I was a cashier. Now I run all of the communications and community outreach programs.
MHN: What first sparked your interest and passion for food justice?
RM: I remember getting dragged to farmers markets when I was younger. So farmers markets in general and supporting local food and access to good, fresh food came from growing up with parents that loved farmers markets. Then, when I started working at various non-profits, I saw huge disparities. I love how food brings people together, but I quickly started to realize that it’s not equally available to everybody, so I wanted to get more involved.
MHN: How would you compare the food communities in Brooklyn to that of New Orleans?
RM: One difference in terms of food access comes down to transportation. In New York it’s a lot easier to get around cheaply if you do not have a car. New Orleans is less of a pedestrian city so its important to have options close to people, which is why Hollygrove is located in the heart of the city.
There are also more food options in New York, so having those resources accessible in a community is easy to take for granted in super dense urban areas. However, prior to Hollygrove Market and Costco arriving, this neighborhood was mostly a food desert.
MHN: What is Hollygrove’s main mission?
RM: Our main mission is to support our growers, customers and community. Hollygrove was originally designed as a tool to generate more revenue and elicit additional programming and investment into the neighborhood. We try to find more ways to involve the community members instead of just a place to buy groceries. For instance, we do a volunteer exchange program — if you work for 4 hours you get a box of produce. We want to provide opportunities for the community to get involved.
Offering discounts to residents of the neighborhood is also important to us.
MHN: Since moving here 2.5 years ago, do you feel like the local food movement is growing?
RM: Definitely. I’ve seen a lot more interest and emphasis on local food both from restaurants and consumers. Some restaurants’ primary focus is supporting local growers; it has become a source of pride and creativity. It ties into all the love [New Orleanians have] for the city. People are committing to spending money locally with regional farmers and artisans instead of outsources for the lowest common denominator.
MHN: What have been some challenges?
RM: One challenge is seasonality. We don’t have every type of produce available year round like most supermarkets. Many people will be looking for okra in December or May without realizing that it’s a summer crop. You could easily go to a chain grocery store, but if you are trying to source more locally and sustainably, you just can’t shop that way. We realize that it takes more effort and planning to cook and shop sustainably, so we try to balance our availability with more food education.
MHN: How would you describe the food community in New Orleans?
RM: Very supportive! We have amazing relationships with farmers in the region and continue to build more relationships that don’t spur competition.
I’ve never felt that we are in direct competition with the Food Co-op or other farmers markets. For me, the more people working on this movement in New Orleans and making fresh, local food available, the more interest and demand there will be from customers. Then we all win.
MHN: What type of food is New Orleans lacking?
RM: I’m biased; I’m half Chinese, so I would love to see a lot more authentic Chinese food. I need to check out Reds.
MHN: What are two ingredients that you cannot live without?
RM: Any sort of fat — either good olive oil or butter. And red pepper flakes.
Check back on Friday for roundup of Rie Ma’s favorite New Orleans restaurants.
This series of stories about New Orleans food trucks, pop-ups and culinary entrepreneurs is made possible through a partnership with local culinary production planning company My House NOLA, in conjunction with MHN’s food truck and pop-up blog.