The Struggle To Make Groceries
Written by Justin Burnell
Saturday, 15 August 2009 15:32
On Wednesday August 7th, Circle Food Store’s parking lot was tented and vendored. The banquet chairs under the tent were filled with people from the surrounding neighborhoods. The corner of St. Bernard and North Claiborne was populated with would-be shoppers for the first time since 2005. They came to support Circle Food 4 Thought’s campaign to reopen the grocery. The Treme is one of many less than affluent areas in the city that functions without a real grocery store and is still entrenched in the rebuilding process.
Circle Food Store was the original “one-stop shop,” as Councilmember Cynthia Willard-Lewis said. The all purpose store started fifty years ago as one of the city-owned and sponsored markets. Originally the city owned seven markets. Over the decades the city sold off these markets, only retaining ownership of the cash cow French Market in the French Quarter. As a private business Circle Food Store served the area as more than a supermarket. It was a place where members of the community could get produce from local farmers: mustard greens from Mississippi; bell peppers from LaPlace. When the school year started they stocked school uniforms. In the back, under low ceilings, there was a pharmacist offering advice and discounted prescriptions. A doctor took patients in a small office a few days a week. As owner Dwayne Boudreaux listed the services offered, a man in a yellow shirt with big block letters reading “Cash is King” yelled, “you could get your gold teeth.” Boudreaux laughed and said that yes, there was a dentistry office there.
Boudreaux went on to say that it wasn’t just a grocery store. Most of the regular customers had his cell phone number to call him for special requests and for security—neighbors would watch over the store as if it were a friend’s house. Over the five decades of its existence the grocery became a community center. Cashiers knew customers’ names and families. They knew to ask about a sick relative or how the purchase of a home was progressing. While talking to Boudreaux, he said that the retail products were the surface level offerings. The store of course offered a meeting ground, but what is not often considered is the training. “We produced good, hard workers,” Boudreaux said. “Now they are all working somewhere else.” He explained that people could come here to gain experience in retail, lean butchery, and how to work with seafood. Or people could come to lean secretarial duties by working in the pharmacy and the doctor/dentist’s offices. Above all other services or commitments to its clientele it is in this that the store bettered its habitués: creating experienced, moderately skilled workers who could compete for jobs.
New Orleans has historically been based on the backs of its poor black population, first in slave trade, then in sex trade and music during the Storyville years. In the more recent past the city survives because of tourist dollars, low-cost workers, and black culture. Whether due to racism, neglect, fiscal irresponsibility, or just tradition, New Orleans has never owned up to its need for this resource by offering social welfare programs. Left to fend for themselves, the impoverished of the city created their own support systems. The most known reaction is the social aid and pleasure clubs that now sponsor so many parades and Mardis Gras floats, but were originally created to help members with funerary costs. Circle Food is a more obscure social support institution. It provided for the needs of multiple neighborhoods. Now the area is without the structure and comfort the store provided, and despite the hundreds of new nonprofits that have launched during The Reconstruction, most New Orleanians still feel there are very few “for us by us” institutions for simple, everyday life concerns.
During Katrina the store stood against four feet of water. The water stayed there for a week, destroying or making unsellable all products. The already out-of-date wiring, insulation, and structure were ruined. Before reopening is considered, the building must be rewired, remodeled, and redesigned. Although months after the hurricane city council approached Boudreaux about making Circle Food Store a state-of-the-art grocery—promising funds for the restoration—money for the project has been withheld and redirected, stalling those plans for the past three years. As the building currently stands it would cost approximately 4.5 million dollars to open doors to the public.
The main point of Circle Food 4 Thought’s campaign is to raise awareness, collect signatures, and send letters to council members James Carter, Jacquelyn Clarkson, and Arnie Fielkow asking for financial aid to open the store. At the rally, personed tables held Tupperware boxes of pre-made cards waiting for constituents’ names and signatures addressed to the council members-at-large. They state that Circle Food Store is a “historic black-owned grocery store” and warn of the loss that could be caused letting the store fade.
Kahlil Shahyed, from the 7th Ward Neighborhood Center, and one of the leaders of the campaign, hopes to move further in the community-oriented approach. His end goal is to turn the store into a cooperative in which the workers, members of the public, and some outside investors would all hold a share of the store and run it democratically. Shahyed stated that the city should invest in this historic site. It seems a cooperative would be a good example of residents taking proactive action instead of waiting for the city to create a similar community center/low-cost pharmacy/medical office. Shahyed’s concerns are first the massive cost to open the store, and second the cost of keeping the business running while maintaining prices affordable to its target audience.
One problem faced by a start-up co-op in a low-income area is the paradigm shift that must take place to keep the store opened. Not only must a reasonably priced co-op fight the stigma of expense and luxury that is attached to organic, farm fresh foods, but they must also compete with shopping patterns and previous perceptions of sustenance. When a person lives paycheck to paycheck with every dollar accounted for it’s absurd and pretentious to convince that person they should pay twenty cents more for an organic apple; a dollar more per pound for cage-free grain-fed chicken. For most people there is no choice or debate. The amount of hormones or pesticides used, or the suffering of an animal is obviously preferable to going hungry or even the further tightening of an already scratch-awled belt. Even if a co-op is able to compete with treated and enhanced foods, there is still the problem of advertising and consumer habits. Super centers are large, bright, and meretricious. We notice their placement as we pass them and we either consciously or unconsciously make note of their location for future reference. They need little ballyhoo and more over, they are easy. The cooperative grocery asks for time, effort, and loyalty. The co-op asks for change and historically change has not been a luxury afforded to the impoverished. Maslow’s classic triangle shows that the lower classes who are busy working to maintain basic needs have, at best, little time to worry about what grocery they shop at or what groceries they buy once past price.
Fortunately, because of its history and cultural significance Circle Foods shouldn’t be faced with overcoming shopping patterns. Attendees of the rally appeared willing to shop at the store no matter what manifestation it takes. The only dispute seemed to be the strategy of the crusade. As the Hot 8 Brass Band began, Cedric, a local Treme resident, asked me if I was associated with the organization. I told him I wasn’t. For some reason he didn’t believe me. He asked me what the point of the event was, and I explained what I knew. He said he knew all that and waved his hand at me.
“You ain’t hearing me,” he said. “Sorry, I ain’t buying in to it. They need to be blowing those horns at City Hall.” He motioned toward the dancing trombone player. “That’s where business is done. Ain’t no business being done here. This place is a funeral home.” We both looked at the hollow building. I said I agreed with him, and that it would take 4.5 to reopen the place.
“Million?!?” he asked.
I told him that was my response. He waved his hand at me again, then turned to talk to someone else. The man wearing the “Cash is King” shirt danced behind the band. People made room for him as he got low. It’s a simple concept that money rules and it takes it to make it. Most people who work in the service industry or at blue collar jobs understand that funds are hard to come by and if you are relying on a government agency, be it local or federal, you should have a back-up plan or be prepared to wait indefinitely.
The idea of a locally owned and/or locally run grocery in the Treme, or any poor neighborhood, is one worth supporting and even fighting for, but one should judge the legitimacy of the plan. A city council funded 4.5 million dollar state-of-the-art supermarket/one-stop-shop/Co-op would send a striking message of hope, promise, and progress to a disenfranchised lower class, but the feasibility of the project is dubious. Perhaps they feel that if they ask for everything they will get something. The question is: even if the city were to invest a million dollars in the store, what will be the retort from more resourced and affluent neighborhoods that are still without a grocery? In addition, if the city does invest will the project become bogged down in bureaucracy and contract dispute? These questions are worth thinking about, but are irrelevant until New Orleans City Council decides to invest in the project.
Boudreaux said that a co-op would be “his heart” and that “nothing would make him happier.” He explained that he is currently speaking with lawyers of “National Corporations”—the dialogue is so nascent that the corporations have not revealed themselves—interested in leasing the property. He hopes that any organization that leases the premises will follow the needs and desires of the surrounding peoples, but first and foremost fills the need for a grocery store in the area. He said that as the leaser he would have little involvement in the business itself and he almost prefers it this way. “I’ve been in the grocery business since I was seventeen. I can run a grocery, but at this point I’d rather be a consultant,” he told me. As we talked people interrupted us to say good-bye to Boudreaux and wished him well. He smiled a big, friendly-grocery smile, and hugged middle-aged women, kissing their cheeks. I asked him if he leases the place, isn’t he a little scared that the business will change or become something that isn’t what he intended or what the community wishes. He looked over to the green husk of a building and said, “Of course, that worries me a lot.”
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