This doctoral dissertation research will examine how marginalized communities perceive and assert their rights over access to adequate food in the city of New Orleans. Racial and economic disparities in access to nutritious food have become prominent concerns in U.S. cities, including New Orleans, especially after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina exposed the city's pervasive racial and class inequalities. Despite greater attention to these inequalities, low-income residents of New Orleans continue to struggle to obtain sufficient fresh food, and the impacts of racism are pronounced. Movements that are concerned about disparities in access to food have combined with those interested in working toward a food system that is environmentally sustainable and transparent, and from this has emerged a "food sovereignty" movement that is activist and democratically controlled. This project will examine food sovereignty activism in the city of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and how it is perceived and understood by both community members and activists. The theoretical basis of this research is a combination of urban geography, critical race studies, and agro-food studies and the project will examine how food activism both constructs and contests race in an urban context. The methods used in this project include interviews, participant observation, and focus groups. The research will situate food sovereignty activism in New Orleans within a broader national context to better understand how ideologies of justice and racial equality within the food system are translated, interpreted, and enacted at the local level within New Orleans.
This project will draw crucial linkages between theories of urban space, racial and socioeconomic disparities, and the food system. Additionally, this study will add to the growing body of research on post-Katrina New Orleans Findings from the research in New Orleans will offer insight into the potential for racially-sensitive food activism in other U.S. cities. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.
This research investigated the emergence and flourishing of grassroots "food justice" activism in the city of New Orleans in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Its primary goals were (1) to investigate the extent to which food justice and food sovereignty discourses and activism interact with and affect the material and social realities of the frequently low-income communities of color in which they are situated; and (2) to examine whether such activism helps or hinders pre-existing efforts to alleviate hunger, overcome racism, and promote social justice at the scales of the neighborhood and of the city. This research utilized qualitiative research methods--including ethnography, participant observation, interviewing, and discourse analysis--to investigate these research questions. It drew on theoretical insights from the fields of urban geography, critical race studies, and agro-food studies to examine how food activism both constructs and contests racialized subjectivity in an urban context. These theoretical and methodological approaches to the research site and questions yielded the following major findings: 1) The "success" or "failure" of urban agriculture and other "food justice" projects to address concerns regarding food access and hunger (or, conversely but relatedly, obesity) relies on a complex matrix of factors, including the race and nativity of the project organizers (i.e., whether or not they are from New Orleans), the sense of mutual social and cultural understanding amongst project organizers and community residents, and the ability of project organizers to examine and confront historic and contemporary legacies of racism and structural inequality. The recent acute disaster of Hurricane Katrina has made these structural inequities more visible on the landscape but has not necessarily facilitated robust power analyses amongst those individuals who have come to the city to help it rebuild. 2) Spatial patterns of food access in the city of New Orleans verify the existence of so-called "food deserts" in which residents of low-income neighborhoods struggle to access fresh food in proximity to where they live. Because food access is a prominent concern and has gained national recognition and notoriety, community residents who engage in political struggles to increase food access are likely to feel empowered to demand other changes that would improve their health and livelihoods. Specific grassroots efforts to increase food access may succeed not only in changing the "foodscape," but also in enhancing civic participation and community activism more broadly, on a range of social issues. For this reason, it is imperative that food justice activism be generated from within communities of need, rather than imposed on them from well-meaning outsiders. This project's intellectual merit lies in its critical linking of theories of urban space, racialized subjectivity, and the paucity of research on race in the food system. Additionally, this study adds to a growing body of research on post-Katrina New Orleans, none of which had previously looked explicitly at food activism as it relates to social justice efforts to rebuild the city. This project's broader impacts lie in its ability to contribute to the development of more socially just and spatially sensitive anti-hunger/food justice/food sovereignty projects that work with and by, rather than for, food insecure communities of color. Its assessment of food justice and food sovereignty projects in New Orleans offers insight into the potential for anti-racist food activism in other U.S. cities. Finally, by drawing on the perspectives of underrepresented communities of color, this research articulates stories that are often excluded from public and academic discourse on food and justice. Consequently, this project illuminates the effects of persistent racial inequality in U.S. cities, and some of the challenges and possibilities for restructuring racialized food insecurity among urban communities of color.