NEW ORLEANS — Dwayne Boudreaux’s memories of the Circle Food Store in New Orleans 7th Ward neighborhood are so vivid he can walk through its colonnade of arches into the dark and empty shell and give a guided tour of how it was before Hurricane Katrina.
He points to where the registers once rang, patrons cashed paychecks, children lined up to buy school uniforms and neighborhood cooks shopped for dressed wild game, live turtles for soups and abundant fresh produce.
“Everybody knew us for the fresh fruits and vegetables,” Boudreaux said. “We were the bell pepper capital of the city.”
Seven years after Katrina flood waters inundated most of New Orleans, the store’s barren insides are emblematic of a problem that neighborhood activists say was exacerbated by the catastrophe: In a city known for its food, fresh produce and affordable groceries are hard to come by in some neighborhoods.
In the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward, activists called attention Saturday to the “food desert” with a festival including live music, cooking demonstrations and a “pop up” outdoor grocery in a church parking lot.
“It will be an actual grocery store, not just a farmer's market,” said Jenga Mwendo, a community organizer. Mwendo said about 30 percent of residents in the Lower 9th Ward lack personal transportation, making a trip to the nearest full-service grocery outlet — a Walmart in the neighboring city of Chalmette — problematic.
Lower 9th resident Gertrude LeBlanc, 76, has her own car — needs it to get quality food. There are convenience stores closer to home, but the prices are high, she said.
“For a person on a fixed income, with no food stamps, it's hard.''
The problem with access to food in the neighborhood stretches back before the storm: Mwendo said there hasn’t been a full-service grocery there in 20 years. And price is not the only problem she sees with
convenience stores. “It’s poor quality food.''
City officials are trying to increase access to fresh, high quality food with a program called Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, which includes a low-interest loan program for supermarkets, grocery stores and other fresh food retailers and the use of federal economic development block grants.
“One, it improves the health of our citizens,'' said Aimee Quirk, an economic adviser to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “Two, it creates jobs.” They hope successful grocery stores can play a role in bringing people back to the city.
That’s an issue in the Lower 9th Ward, where empty lots are still evident and the 2010 census indicates a population that is roughly a fifth of what it was before the 2005 storm's levee breaches.
“I get calls from people in other areas … that still don’t want to come back to the area because they don’t have a grocery store here,” said Boudreaux, who hopes to return Circle to its role as an economic and cultural landmark in the 7th Ward, where census figures show population is about 60 percent of pre-Katrina levels.
The 1930s-era Circle building is believed to be the first grocery in the city that was owned and operated by African-Americans, and it remains a geographic landmark with its Spanish tiled roof, pale stucco exterior and circus-style lettering.
Boudreaux, who took over ownership the store in the 1990s after he was hired to manage it in 1987, has been working for years to line up financing for its post-Katrina restoration, getting help from the business school at Tulane University and the city in getting low-interest loans and grants. He expects to have the deals completed and renovation begun by early November.
“It's just so vital to the community,” he said. “It’s something that I need to do and want to do.”