On August 29 a fifth category hurricane battered the southeast United States with gusts of wind reaching speeds of 145 mph. Its name was Katrina and close on its heels came another, Rita. The most severely affected area was the Gulf Region, including part of Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana. To provide a rough idea of the damage sustained: Louisiana lost 9% of the national sugar cane production; 70% of Florida’s avocado crop was swept away by the wind; over 10,000 head of cattle and millions of chickens were slaughtered; the fishing industry (especially shrimp) and Louisiana’s oyster farms were brought to their knees with 151 million dollars’ worth of damage. Small-scale producers and farmers suffered extensive damage due to the infiltration of salt water into the land and gas leaks from tanks and deposits, not to mention shattered warehouses, fencing blown down and damaged machinery.
The list of damage continues and perhaps should be followed by an overview of the complete absence of coordination and efficiency shown by rescue vehicles and the American government’s slow response to the emergency. What is certain is that almost four months after one of the worst natural disasters ever to befall the US, the situation in the affected area is still extremely serious.
Slow Food could not close its eyes to a disaster of this entity and thus decided to use the tools available to help those who are included in the Movement’s guiding philosophy – i.e. farmers, fishermen and local food producers.
Ray, a Louisiana fisherman, runs a small family business fishing shrimp and other species typically found in the Gulf waters, like blue crab and catfish. He started fishing at the age of fifteen and continued right up until Katrina sunk his fishing boat, destroying his home and everything he owned.
Roko has a similar story to tell: an immigrant to New Orleans from Croatia, he set up a small business forty years ago gathering Louisiana’s famous oysters. The hurricane destroyed the larger of his two boats and the second can only fish shallow waters. There is no electricity or refrigeration system to preserve the oysters.
Isabel is one of the few people still growing the rare Louisiana strawberry – a US Ark product – on a small family-run farm which is entirely organic and sells to a strictly local market. All this was destroyed by the hurricane. These are just some of the beneficiaries Slow Food has identified and aims to help, after careful assessment of the damage sustained and respect for Slow principles. Slow Food has also identified a few restaurateurs who have contributed towards defining the farm food traditions of New Orleans like Tony Mandina and Angelo Brocato (both of Sicilian origin). The former runs a small trattoria serving excellent local food, while the latter is the most authentic ice-cream maker in the city. Both men were forced to close their business after Katrina. The complete list of beneficiaries of the aid Slow Food has undertaken to collect (including contact information) is available on the Slow Food USA site at www.slowfoodusa.org.
We believe that it is our duty to offer support to these producers as the true custodians of a legacy of farm food traditions handed down in the Gulf area through groups of immigrants from far-off countries, and which deserves to be preserved. The Gulf area, with New Orleans as its emblem, typically contains a number of immigrant groups who came here in different periods of history bringing with them their food traditions and different farming techniques, adapting and blending them to create a unique cultural heritage: Croatian fishermen, Sicilian pastry chefs, African farmers, German butchers.
The aid action organised by Slow Food for the area affected by Katrina and Rita is gathered under the large umbrella of the Terra Mare project, which is much more than just a meeting of over 1,200 worldwide food communities. Terra Madre is a network of men and women working in different ways to protect food traditions threatened by an increasingly globalised and fast-paced world. The Gulf disaster was an opportunity to test the solidarity of this network. An appeal was launched to all food communities requesting gestures of support and solidarity for their fellow farmers and fishermen who were now in difficulty – be it a symbolic form of aid, an expression of solidarity, sending equipment or donating funds. Even the smallest gesture had great significance.
The funds collected by local convivia and individual donations will be incorporated in a single Terra Madre Fund and redistributed to individual beneficiaries. As well as strengthening the link between local producers and Terra Madre, the beneficiaries of the funds and support will be nominated to take part in the next Terra Madre meeting to be held in October 2006. On this occasion they will be able to meet delegates from food communities with similar problems, share experiences and thus reinforce links that bind the network as a whole.
Lastly, as well as fund collecting and the involvement of Terra Madre, Slow Food USA with a partner organization – Seed Savers Exchange – distributed 2,500 packets of seeds of rare varieties to Louisiana farmers affected by Katrina, at the reopening of the New Orleans market on November22. The generous donation of Seed Savers Exchange (a non-profit-making organization working to catalogue and protect seeds threatened with extinction) allowed many farmers to sow vegetables which they will be able to harvest and sell in spring. At the same time it also contributed towards protecting biodiversity by helping the growth of varieties with rich histories but which are hard to find on the market.
Four months after Katrina, there is still a long way to go towards rebuilding the devastated area, but Slow Food has not forgotten the fishermen, farmers and producers who need help. And Terra Madre is ready to lend a hand.
Ermina Martini works at the Slow Food USA office in New York City
Adapted by Ailsa Wood
Photo: Ray Brandhurst with his fishing boat, which was sunk by Katrina.