We are SO excited – our ED, Marianne Cufone, was selected to be on the 2nd ever Grist 50 list. Announced today, the Grist 50 is a new annual list that highlights who’s hot in the national green movement. Meet all 50 of this year’s “fixers”.
Each year, Grist searches for inspiring innovators and do-ers working on fresh solutions to the planet’s biggest problems. The result is a collection of 50 leaders who are building a sustainable world that works for everyone. Solutions come in many shapes and sizes: exciting technologies, smart campaigns, forward-thinking legislation, innovative products, courageous organizations. As do solutionaries: entrepreneurs, comedians, farmers, activists, scholars, scientists, and more. The Grist 50 shows what a vibrant, diverse sustainability movement looks like. Last year’s inaugural list reached and inspired nearly 6 million readers! Check it out!
I really enjoy hearing people’s food memories. It’s a simple way to connect over something absolutely universal and it inevitably becomes a very personal conversation.
My most vivid food memory is from when I was little, returning to New Orleans from San Diego every Mardi Gras and smelling eggs, grits, sausage, toast and coffee wafting up the stairs and permeating every crevice at my grandmother’s Uptown 2-story double house. The windows were often open to circulate the air, but that never diminished the beckoning power of that savory aroma. It let me know it was time for breakfast. I got to see my Paw-paw (grandfather), though he was no longer married to, nor lived with my grandmother, and my Marran (godmother), but hardly ever my Parran (godfather). It was time to watch Rev, the old man who rented the front room from my Grandma, head out in his 3-piece suit and matching hat to parts unknown (to me at least). It was time to dive in to what was probably not SUCH an amazing a meal, but to me, it was absolutely everything.
I grew up in an apartment in San Diego, an only child to a single mother. Things got fancy at my place when we had Waffle-O’s for breakfast and not her favorite, Corn Flakes. She cooked, but it was what I could characterize as “survival cooking”. Mom became expert at a couple of meals that she made up. My favorite of them was smoked sausage in red gravy over rice (which wasn’t really red gravy at all – it was just jarred tomato sauce; and yes, now I know there is a difference). Otherwise, we did Swanson’s TV dinners a lot so we would not miss an episode of important shows, Arby’s because there were coupons in the Sunday paper, Jack-in-the-Box because it was on the way to my school, and a fair amount of Hamburger Helper.
Having a big breakfast that wasn’t from McDonald’s and didn’t come with a side of donuts was an anomaly. It being home cooked was amazing, again not because the food was so incredible, but mainly because it was a time to catch up on the “news”.
More of my grandmothers’ friends and neighbors had fallen invariably ill, some had relocated to be closer to their children, some had died. The new hotspot was the Senior Center where grandma was learning to paint and enjoy her crotchet circle. My Marran was well into her 30s and still not married. She spun lavish tales of her job at the shoe store on Canal Street and her “near misses” to her settling down. She and my Parrain hadn’t spoken since 1973 (which could be an exaggeration) when he broke off their engagement to marry another woman. But far as she knew, they had some kids, lived someplace, and seemed to be happy. My Paw-paw would only ever talk enough to say hello, ask us how we were doing, and complain about my grandmother just enough to irritate her, then head off to his new family (to be fair, he had been married to whoever she was a good 20 years by then).
What I mean is that this wasn’t just about the food – it was the feeling and experiences that came with the food being there on the plate, on the table, in the kitchen, with my family, that sticks with me. That feeling of connectedness, a sense of belonging. And no matter how the characters change or what the actual food is in the memory, that is exactly what I remember: the togetherness. And so we learn from our family and pass on our traditions across the table, just as you would pass the peas.
For instance, we had milk or water with meals – never wine, soda, or juice. The only wines I recall were Manischewitz or those gallons of Gallo, so no great loss there. But Grandma would hide her pink canned Tab sodas in her room, so that no one else would drink them. She was on a fixed income and was a diabetic so she needed her Tab. I learned soda was reserved for special occasions and certainly not to be consumed willy-nilly.
There was no drinking any of whatever you had before you had cleaned your plate. This was along the same vein as “having eyes bigger than your stomach”, which was a major sin punishable by stern reprimand, about don’t waste food because it was hard to come by. Now, as an adult, I look back and see that my grandmother had survived the Depression. She lived in a time long before mass food production, for her there was no such thing as food waste, and everybody had a Victory Garden. Food really was hard to come by and growing it was hard work. So I learned to be respectful of the value of food; it is to be consumed consciously and intentionally; it is not to be discarded carelessly.
We said thanks to the cook and Grace before eating, no matter what the meal. If Rev was around, he would lead the prayer, but it was generally just an expression of gratitude to have something to eat. It wasn’t until I got my first job and my own apartment that I understood intense gratitude for having food. I learned appreciation.
My food habits started when I was a kid, but they evolved much more when I had children of my own. My kids wake up to the smell of baking quick breads, muffins, or even granola fairly often. They understand that “eating with the seasons” means we only have blueberry pancakes in the summer and pecan pie muffins in the Fall because that’s when the fruit/nut is available. They know that crawfish is a spring thing, but shrimp and okra smothered with creole tomatoes is a gift that summer has to offer.
For me, it’s still not just about the food – it’s about what comes with it. It’s the zany stories from the family, about knowing who you are and who your family is. It’s still about being respectful of food and learning to consume it consciously and intentionally. It is still about gratitude and appreciating the greatness in the most humble constructions and presentations…just like I did then and do now.
One Sunday morning, I took time to reflect my choice to work as a farmer. I sat under a volunteer pecan tree, near a pink lemon tree and a fig tree that survived Hurricane Katrina. As the wind hit my face, I couldn’t help but smile. The wind brought the approval of my ancestors, who worked as sharecroppers and farmers in Tallahassee, Florida.
I have been an urban farmer in New Orleans for some time now. My work as a farmer is similar to that of my ancestors, it is done out of necessity. There was a time when I could not afford the produce I needed to maintain my health. Using the tools I learned from my family, I started growing by assisting a neighbor with transforming a lot into an urban farm. I worked for myself, and for my neighbors. I really wanted the residents of the Hollygrove neighborhood to have access to the fresh food I’d grown.
I became known in my neighborhood, affectionately, as “Farmer Brown” because I’d often wear a straw hat while working on the farm. I quickly learned that seeing me on the farm could change my neighbor’s knowledge, attitudes and eventually their behaviors too, about including fresh produce in their diets. As my fruits and vegetables grew, I’d offer them to the community – so they could taste the different items I was growing.
After conducting a neighborhood survey, through Fitness Fleet, Inc., I learned many of the people I saw every day were plagued by preventable chronic diseases. As their “Farmer Brown”, I was unofficially dubbed their community health worker too and I wanted my work to ensure everyone around me had access to fresh, healthy produce at an affordable price, to support and improve their health.
Soon, I was given the opportunity to work as the head farmer at Agrowtopia at Xavier University. Agrowtopia is a farm that literally sprouted from an idea of a group of Xavier students. Like my neighborhood, the University is centered in a food desert in an area called Gert Town. These students, some now graduated, decided their urban farm should not only grow fresh produce, but provide information to the neighborhood on healthy living too. Now, I work with student volunteers on .2 acres of land with 28 raised garden beds – and we grow healthy fresh food.
Accessibility and affordability to healthy food is essential for a healthy life. Yet, in New Orleans, like many cities in the United States, especially predominantly Black and low income neighborhoods, there are disparities in retail food accessibility, affordability, and quality. My work as a farmer allows me to change this at a grassroots level, while honoring my family legacy and helping to ensure a healthy future for my family, friends, and neighbors.
About the author: Kaleb Hill is an experienced New Orleans urban farmer who runs the farm and programs at Agrowtopia at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and also owns a co-op, Oko Vue Produce Co., he and a fellow Xavierite, Jonathan Menyon, founded.
Show your love for recirculating farms today – tell USDA – recirculating farms that meet USDA Organic standards should be eligible for the USDA Organic label!
Right now, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – an advisory body to the U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) – on all things “organic” is discussing whether to prevent sustainable recirculating farms from being eligible for the USDA Organic label! It seems unthinkable that hydroponic and aquaponic farms that can not only meet, but in some instances beat existing organic standards should not be labeled USDA Organic! These farms can recycle water and waste, run on solar or other alternative energy, limit the need for antibiotics, fertilizers and pesticides and be located in otherwise unusable spaces for growing – like rooftops, and paved, rocky or small spaces. They prevent depletion of nutrients in soil and are both an answer to resilience in growing in an ever changing climate and contribute far less than other forms of farming to factors that hasten climate change. This all makes them an ideal match with USDA Organic principles. BUT some companies are fighting for their edge in the market and want to keep the organic label all to themselves. Please let the NOSB know you want all farms that can meet USDA Organic standards to be labeled USDA Organic – learn more and sign the petition here!
Most black families I know strongly believe the way you season food comes from your soul. It’s the heart and love of the cook that makes the meal special. In my own family, “If it ain’t spicy, it ain’t good.” When I was a little boy, and I would be punished, usually for making too much noise, it was off to a chair in the kitchen, where my grandmother would be cooking for the family. This wasn’t really punishment to me, but it did keep me in one place so I couldn’t get into more trouble. I will never forget what seemed like magic, in my grandmother’s kitchen. There would be a pot on every burner, steam clouds to the ceiling, and always something boiling over (usually rice). My grandmother reminded me (as I look back) of a music conductor. If something steams too much, lower the fire or if something boils over, take the lid off or take the lid off AND lower the fire – you get the gist. In any case, she conducted her cooking and tended to it as seriously as if she was babysitting the most fragile and littlest of her grandkids. Food smoke and cloud puffs filled the ceiling and made for quite a scene. It would literally take her all day to get the entire meal prepared. The gas stove in my grandmother’s house would burn from AM to PM and then some, depending on what was on the menu that day. I recall we always had some sort of bean – red, kidney, white or butter. It was always the main course, over rice, with usually a variety of side meats – pickled, smoked or both.
My grandmother had a small garden in the backyard, before it was trendy, as did most of her neighbors. There she grew peppers, tomatoes and of course chayote (or as we say, mirliton). If she didn’t have something fresh in the garden, a trip to the Circle Food store was needed. This usually involved a series of buses to get across town. Making groceries, then loaded with bags, boarding a bus, and then another, or sometimes more, and then walking about a mile with both arms full of food for the family, to get back home and cook. Worth it? I don’t remember any leftovers!