The theme of the 14th annual Community Food Security Coalition Conference (CFSC) was “The Gumbo That Unites Us All.” I expected good food at the conference, especially in such a group of enlightened eaters. With sessions such as “Building Community through Food Security” and “Growing Abundance: Restoring Neighborhood Connections to Healthy Food” I knew I was in good hands. But I write about contradictions in the good food movement, so I trekked to New Orleans to attend the mother ship of food justice events to see if any contradictions would be revealed.
Unsurprisingly, several meals that I ate at the event offered exceptional food from local farmers. The opening reception featured local goat and fresh green sprouts grown in the Lower Ninth Ward by students of Our School At Blair Grocery. Local potatoes and vegetables made a lovely breakfast. The tours of family fisheries and urban agriculture also impressed me. One tour’s lunch was catfish caught, skinned, fillet and fried in front of our eyes by the Fonseca’s, whose families have fished the bayou for generations. Sustainable and delicious, the outing taught us about catfish’s critical role in the ecosystem and celebrated the brilliant convergence that only a small-scale producer can offer in taste, tradition, and environmental responsibility.
Wisely, organizers had planned to serve no lunch so that we could explore the city, support local businesses and “skip eating corporate food served by the hotel.”
But I had already connected with local food. When I’d checked into my French Quarter hotel the first evening, I was exhausted from flying, starving and had no patience even for my iPhone local food app. The gentleman staffing the front desk had a graceful and serious air, so I leveled with him and said, “Food is my first priority. I live for authentic, non-pretentious, affordable food that the locals flock to. Where should I eat?”
I found my food-soul-mate in Bruce Fritz, who gave me my first New Orleans food lagniappe when he recommended Coop’s Place. One of my best experiences of the trip was Coop’s gumbo. It was intense, redolent with spices and rich with seafood and okra. I talked to Jordan Cooperman, the son of Coop’s owner, assisting at the rough-hewn counter. Hip, young, sincere and business-savvy, Jordan epitomized pride in his food culture. He enthusiastically described the restaurant’s passion for offering authentic, affordable food to locals and tourists. He nonchalantly accepted my gumbo compliments, mentioning that they smoke their own pork for Tasso, and that local seafood is a given. But when I asked him, he couldn’t name one farmer or producer that supplied him, and doubted anyone else working there could.
Lunch breaks during the conference illustrated more contradictions. I had an unexpected meal at Muriel’s, an upscale bastion of tradition on Jackson Square. I hadn’t planned to eat there, but a conference meeting was next door, and I had arrived 45 minutes early, hungry. Elegant ladies in prim suits and heels whisked past my table as I grilled my gracious server about local seafood choices. He said all menu items were local except the mahi mahi. He didn’t know names of Muriel’s seafood providers, but he said his parents are friends with them, and that both families had been in New Orleans since the Spanish American war.
I told him about food conference I was attending and he seemed genuinely interested. I was even more impressed that the restaurant co-owner, Rick Gratia, came out to talk. He held up admirably as I quizzed him about sourcing, pointing out local products on the menu, mentioning current and seasonal standouts including the endangered heritage mirliton squash, local beans, local peas, blueberries, satsumas, and rabbit. Local seafood definitely was on the menu but he couldn’t name the fishing family. He sat with me until my salad arrived. I savored the crab salad with gulf shrimp, giving high marks for flavor and freshness. I had to give low marks for the out-of-season asparagus and the mango vinaigrette. But the restaurant’s deep pride of place produced a very satisfying plate.
Back at the conference, I checked in with food justice stalwart and veteran attendee Siena Chrisman of Why Hunger, an organization focused on hunger and poverty. Her examples of conference food that bristled with irony came fast and furious. She mentioned afternoon snack candy from Mars and Hershey, and processed nutrition bars in which high fructose corn syrup was the first, third and fourth ingredients, noting that these were all items the conference emphasized not eating. Nature’s Gate packaged cereals at breakfast annoyed her too.
But the Sodexo sponsorship was her really big issue. The conference program featured a full-page Sodexo advertisement on the back cover. Chrisman noted that A Service Employees International Union (SEUI) led campaign protesting poverty-level wages and the processed, unhealthy food on offer make the company a mismatch with the exceptional achievements and lofty ideals of CFSC.
“The bulk of Sodexo’s food is from the industrial food system,” said Chrisman. “I feel uncomfortable with CFSC giving them this huge platform to food-wash their company.”
Andy Fisher, Executive Director of CFSC, told me that corporate sponsorship provides scholarships to people who otherwise could not afford to attend. He believes Sodexo is trying to do the right thing, although he wishes the company would be more supportive of local food sourcing. He noted that Sodexo’s recent signing of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ agreement illustrated “an important commitment in the right direction.”
My quest for contradictions satisfied, I shared a shuttle to the airport with a Texan in town for an oil convention. His golf clubs, enormous diamond ring, and Tea Party reading material made me ready to rumble. I asked him about his food experiences. He said New Orleans pleased him, especially the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. He then surprised me completely offering the biggest contradiction I found during my trip. “Write this down, young lady, for your report: ‘Soft drinks are the cigarette butt of the millennium. They make our kids fat and sick. They need to drink healthy beverages like water.’ ”
My experience at the CFSC conference raised many questions, highlighted real contradictions and yet inspired me to continue to investigate the giant stew that is the good food movement. We still have far to go before our food is good, fair, and clean. Next year’s conference is in my hometown of Oakland, CA. I’ll volunteer to help CFSC continue their pioneering work.