Next year, the Southern Foodways Alliance will explore inclusion and exclusion at the Southern table in 2014. This theme is two-fold. It marks the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Southern restaurants. It also challenges us to take an honest look at ourselves today—for the sake of tomorrow. Who is included? Who is excluded? For the Southern table, what are the implications of obesity? Class, nationality, and sexuality? These are critical issues to ponder. Sustainable South hopes to draw your attention to agricultural groups tackling inclusion and exclusion from the field.
The VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative challenges head-on problems of inclusion and exclusion in New Orleans, Louisiana. The cooperative, established following the effects of the BP oil spill on the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, aims to provide the highest quality local produce and seafood to Crescent City and beyond.
The story of this community goes back to 1975 when, after the fall of Saigon, the Archdiocese of New Orleans invited many of the Christian Vietnamese who supported the U.S.-allied government to seek asylum in Louisiana. There, the Vietnamese found a familiar climate and jobs as fishermen, a trade many had practiced in Vietnam.
Since then, the community has grown to 8,000 Vietnamese living in a one-mile radius in New Orleans East. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina and then the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the community exemplifies innovation and resilience—through sustainable urban farming.
Following the hurricane, the community found itself without a hospital and other basic services. The mayor at the time, Ray Nagin, turned a green space in the community into a landfill. In addition to debris from the storm, the city dumped pesticides and other chemicals.
The community mobilized outside City Hall, protesting loudly enough that the administration shut down the landfill. In an interview, one protest participant, Tap Bui, said that
“the movement was the first time we Vietnamese actually felt like real Americans. Before, we just paid our taxes.”
Then the BP oil spill happened—directly impacting the jobs of a third of the community.
“With the loss of livelihood, mental and physical health issues increased,” Bui confided. “For the older Vietnamese, it’s really a case of ‘I fish, therefore I am.'”
Again, the community rallied. The community hosted workshops to develop sustainable aquaculture practices (farming fish under controlled conditions) for the area. VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative is a manifestation of those efforts. The cooperative recycles fish byproducts to grow fresh produce, which is then sold to local restaurants and stores. The produce is grown without use of chemical pesticides, using both traditional in-ground farming as well as aquaponics.
According to Bui, the fishermen who lost their livelihoods with the oil spill have supplemented 100 per cent of their earlier incomes. Through VEGGI—which coordinates marketing and transportation—80 cents of every dollar goes back to cooperative members. Click here to meet the farmers who, with their community, are setting a place at the table.
Emilie Dayan, our project manager, blogs weekly about issues of nutrition, sustainability, and food policy in the South.