Preservation In Print
McCarthyism we can all celebrate
By Danielle Del Sol
In “The Ever Evolving Warehouse District” story featured in the November 2011 issue of Preservation In Print, we interviewed Crescent City Farmer’s Market and marketumbrella.org founder Richard McCarthy. McCarthy began a Saturday market in New Orleans’ Warehouse District — in the parking lot of local coffee and foods magnate Reily Foods, to be exact — in 1995 with the hopes of simultaneously opening three other markets across the city. It took some time, but he and a small staff met that goal: In addition to the Saturday market downtown, markets were held throughout the week Uptown, in Mid-City and in the French Market in the Quarter. While the French Market branch disappeared after Hurricane Katrina, the other markets continue to thrive. “On Tuesday mornings, there are so many white (chef) jackets at our market, you’d think it was a lunatic asylum,” McCarthy joked.
In the meantime, marketumbrella.org has also helped grow 30 other markets around the South, including the Crescent City Farmer’s Market’s thriving sister market in Baton Rouge. With a staff of six and over 60 vendors from farms across Louisiana and Mississippi, the three farmer’s markets moved over $400,000 in the market’s wooden token currency last year — and that figure doesn’t even count sales from customers paying cash. A recent report by SEED estimates that the downtown market’s annual economic impact reaches nearly $5 million. McCarthy’s prolific work has had a tremendous economic impact on the city, clearly, in the past 16 years, but the markets he has grown have also strongly impacted food culture, community, neighborhood vitality and social justice in New Orleans. Read his thoughts on some of these fascinating topics in excerpts from his interview, below.
On how a market can revitalize a neighborhood
We mushroom up in a neighborhood, and we may inconvenience neighbors for four hours, because they may not be set up with adjacent parking lots, but then we’re gone, and we clean up everything as if we were never there. That’s an efficient model to share throughout the city, where the market can be a pivotal public space that can rebrand a neighborhood as safe, that can rebrand a Main Street as a destination. I think the Freret Street Market has done that. Freret Street is now hoppin’ — and I think the market has helped to galvanize people’s sense of confidence that there is something happening, there is leadership on Freret, and to rebrand it as a safe space. And this success doesn’t have to come from a food market. The art market in Palmer Park is also incredibly successful.
We need an asset-based approach to growing the economy here. We possess all these assets, we just need to invest in them. If you look at the movie industry, you might ask, why are they interested in Louisiana? Well certainly the tax credits help, but tax credits in less interesting places won’t work as well because we have all the assets [the industry is looking for]: our architecture, our climate, our neighborhoods. Similarly, our asset of a shared love of food and a vibrant, original food culture means we can talk about our food and talk to lots of different kinds of people and pull them in. So that has been the thinking that has driven our work. Simultaneously there is a social agenda of widening people’s social network, making people feel included, growing economic entrepreneurial development and regionalism, and then bettering public health.
On food stamps and the perception that farmer’s markets are “where fancy people shop”
One of the major obstacles at the very beginning was food stamps. Certainly the perception is that markets are where the fancy people shop, and partly that was because the growth of markets occurred right when the federal USDA went to the electronic benefit transfer. Gone were the paper food stamps that farmers have always accepted, and in came this electronic benefit card. So we couldn’t accept food stamps for the first decade of our existence. That defined where the markets would go, and who we could serve. Now we and other markets [have]…a wireless machine where we swipe cards — credit, debit and benefit cards — and like alchemists, turn your plastic into wood [wooden farmer’s market currency tokens]. That removes the stigma for food stamp shoppers, and we have been able to run programs that incentivize behavioral change. So if you come with your food stamp card we’ll match it, dollar for dollar, up to $25 [so that $25 in food stamps is $50 in wooden tokens to shop]. We’ve been leading short, intense campaigns to increase food stamp traffic at our markets and probably have 600 percent more food stamp transactions now than three years ago.
On preserving food traditions vs. new trends and inventiveness
In our market, much like in New Orleans as a whole, we really juggle the values of preservation and innovation. So the farmers who come in, we want them growing Creole okra, Creole tomatoes, making Creole cream cheese, all those sorts of things, but we also welcome the introduction of arugula, spaghetti squash — things we are not at all familiar with. I think that’s the healthy tension between innovation and preservation. We feel very strongly about food traditions, and that cannon of work — red beans and rice, gumbo, etc. — needs to be preserved. But once that’s handled, the incredible Creole experiment is that whoever comes in gets absorbed into this blending, and what once was peculiar outsider food becomes absorbed into another part of our menu. You see the infusion of Latino foods, Vietnamese foods, Brazilian foods coming in, and I think we’re quite comfortable handling that. It is a living process — we need to bring in new tastes and new faces.
On the new economic impact of farmers
Growing my own food got me into food issues from an agricultural standpoint and I realized, my gosh, our footprint on the agricultural economy in Louisiana is plantation economics. It’s sugar, it’s cotton, it’s large landowners employing people with low wages who do not get to benefit from the fruits of their labor. Far more interesting to me were the efforts of small landowners, whether it was Sicilian immigrants, Native Americans, free people of color, German immigrants — they are the landowners who would make marvelous things happen and help to shape our culinary tapestry. Creole cream cheese — it was the Germans and French creating Creole cream cheese, and it was small dairies who produced it. That’s what we [the Crescent City Farmer’s Market] wanted to do: give a platform for those small food producers to reconnect with cities that are half-starved for quality food.
When I began to look at what worked well in the developing world*, it was the informal economy. It was that informal space — shantytowns and whatnot —where people don’t wait for officials to come around and invent their reality. They just do it themselves. So little urban farms and shops and markets and cooperatives, that’s sort of what inspired me to put that economic and social change theory to work here, in maybe the most unexpected part of the developing world — New Orleans.
And as to the farmers, if originally we were asking them to come to Baghdad to sell their produce, guns flying in terms of their perception [of New Orleans’ Warehouse District in the early 1990s], they now go to restaurants, to the zoo, to museums — they spend time in the city.
*Note: McCarthy studied the developing world and social justice at the London School of Economics.
On re-establishing New Orleans’ once-grand food market culture and town squares
When we went to the neighborhood association [as the market was first being established in 1995], they just didn’t believe us because there had been several stories about grocery stores opening down here [and none had panned out]. People said that to really lure residents down here, we needed grocery services. We told them we didn’t think that was sustainable yet, because there wasn’t the critical mass of residents. And anyways we’re not interested in grocery stores, —we’re interested in town squares that revolve around a shared love of food. And that’s really what farmer’s markets are doing in their reinvention all over the U.S., and really all over the world. It’s a strange thing — America has stamped out, in the 20th century, the wonderful chaotic heritage of farmer’s markets, public markets, that don’t fit in with the worldview that shopping malls provide in the suburbs, against all odds. Now, as we travel the world visiting markets, people across the globe refer to what we do here — where you’ve got to grow it to sell it, usually once a week, open air, no infrastructure farmer’s market — as an “American style market.” That is kind of ironic considering it’s anything but, but our reinvention of farmer’s markets is so intentional. This odd thing happened as we meandered towards the 21st century where people started saying, I want community connected to my food. And now you see it everywhere you go – a sort of taste of place.