Field Site Spotlight: New Orleans, LA

Imani Marshall, Deondre’ Jones, Sakeenah ShabazzEmerson, Field

Our series on Emerson Fellows and their field work continues with a look at three Fellows in New Orleans, LA, working with Market Umbrella and the Jesuit Social Research Institute.

Image of a mother and child walking in front of a mural in New Orleans

Imani Marshall

As an Emerson Hunger Fellow I am working at Market Umbrella (MU). MU is a non-profit organization that conducts research, creates tools, and administers programs to advance public markets. In New Orleans, MU runs the Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM) and designs programs to increase access to fruits and vegetables in the Greater New Orleans area. During my field placement, I am working with my supervisor, Victoria Williams, LMSW Healthy Moms Program Manager, to develop two programs that will increase access to fruits and vegetables for low-income mothers and families. First Market Umbrella hopes to pilot accepting WIC Cash Value Voucher (CVV) at Louisiana farmers markets. The WIC CVV provides families the opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables. Other states allow CVV to be accepted at farmers markets. We are piloting this program to understand if WIC participants would like to spend their WIC CVV at farmers markets and how Louisiana farmers markets and the state government could help support this possibility. We are also developing a breastfeeding incentive program called the Market Mommas Club. Breastfeeding mothers on WIC receive $80 each month, if they attend a breastfeeding peer group for up to 6 months. Breastfeeding is a difficult process and it is more difficult for many of the underserved families I have met that are balancing work, school, and childcare. The Market Mommas Club is an attempt to incentivize breastfeeding and connect mothers to the resources they need to sustain breastfeeding. The main objectives of these programs are to increase breastfeeding rates and fruit and vegetable consumption for women that receive WIC in Orleans Parish.

For some of the most vulnerable families the prices of fruits and vegetables and WIC’s formula subsidization means making healthier “choices” is too often nearly impossible. I have heard stories of women choosing between returning to work or breastfeeding because they lacked the proper support. Increasing access to fresh produce and breastfeeding support ensures that there is a real choice to make. When families choose these healthier practices, it has substantial public health and economic benefits. For example, eating fresh fruits and vegetables lowers one’s risk for obesity, hypertension and diabetes-all major risk factors for maternal mortality in New Orleans. Changing shopping and infant feeding patterns can also have economic benefits. Eating healthy and local has many positive externalities like decreasing negative environmental impacts. Increasing both behaviors substantially could also decrease healthcare costs in the long run. The market does not account for these social benefits, but these programs would essentially subsidize these positive behaviors. MU is developing programs that can make important economic and health impacts on the people of New Orleans.

Initially, I was a little apprehensive about working as a Hunger Fellow in a new city. Although I was excited to move to a new place where I had so much to learn and experience, I was worried that without a deeper understanding of the city and its residents, there was not much I could offer New Orleans in return. In my experience, change based on local action and knowledge is most successful. I have been fortunate to work and learn with community organizers in diverse communities from the west side of Chicago to western Massachusetts where I gained experience eliciting community input or working as an ally. Despite this experience, I feared that my new position and title would elicit a deference that would leave my ideas unchecked. This was not the case.

Instead, in New Orleans I am learning from a community of people that criticize the status quo while looking towards a better future. So many people are working tirelessly to reimagine community in this city. I have met so many organizations working to ensure their community has what they need to survive and aggregating resources to accomplish what the government has failed to. For example, midwives and doulas from organizations like Sista Midwife and the Birthmark Doula collective in New Orleans donate their time to ensure that women can protect their lives, bodies and families.  In Plaquemines Parish, I visited a family of black farmers developing a food hub to provide the food they grow as well as donated foods directly to the food-insecure families in their rural community.

During field site training, my cohort of Fellows considered what a more equitable and just world would look like. I still do not have a complete idea, but I do feel that creating more communities of innovation, reflection and resistance that I have been welcomed into in New Orleans will be key to improving our world.

I feel so incredibly fortunate to be working in New Orleans and interacting with a community of change makers that are so committed to improving their communities. So many have generously shared their experiences and knowledge contributing to my work at MU as well as my personal growth. I hope that with the support of my colleagues at MU, the other revolutionary thinkers and doers I have encountered in New Orleans along with my fellowship community I will continue to get closer to understanding what liberation looks like for my own community, this nation, and our world.


New Orleans Skyline

Deondre’ Jones

Hey y’all, my name is Deondre’ Jones and I am currently placed in New Orleans, Louisiana with Market Umbrella. I can recall when I first got the email notifying me of my field placement and the unique elation that ran through my body. I wanted to be somewhere that would displace me from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina, but would also offer me the wealth of culture and hearty food options that the South had afforded me all of my life. New Orleans was perfect for me then and still is now. I’ve learned so many different local quirks, such as the phrase “makin’ groceries” and the proper way to pronounce words like “bayou” and “gumbo”. It is not uncommon to hear sounds of blues, jazz, and brass horns spilling out from intimate bars and clubs as you explore the city. To answer your question, yes, the food is amazing here and yes, the accents are real.

As great as New Orleans has been to me, it is impossible to overlook the immense struggles that this city -and Louisiana as a whole- has with food security and poverty. Louisiana has some of the highest food insecurity rates in the country, made only worse by the numerous occurrences of natural disasters within the state. When you couple that with this state also being one of the worst places for SNAP and WIC participation/redemption rates, it makes for an excellent placement for an Emerson Hunger Fellow. There’s always work to be done here!

Market Umbrella is one of the most unique organizations that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I’ve never been involved with a nonprofit that is able to focus efforts on directly servicing the hunger needs of people in the now, while also working to properly support low-income folks in the future. Market Umbrella hosts the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, which increases access to healthy food in four different locations across the city. A patron of the market may use SNAP benefits. In fact, the farmers market runs a Market Match program, which will match SNAP dollars spent at the market 1 for 1! This is only the beginning of what Market Umbrella does for the citizens of New Orleans.

My job here at Market Umbrella is to help structure the Healthy Food Retail Program for the state of Louisiana. This is a program that aims to grant and loan money to food initiatives across the state, with the purpose of increasing access to fresh, healthy foods to communities that are not near grocery stores. Currently, community members are forced to purchase groceries from convenience and corner stores. It is my job to look at grocery retail outlet data and identify areas of need that the program should prioritize first, as well as structuring some of the program guidelines. Through this project, I have gained so much insight into what factors lead to low food access areas, as well as how different organizations can partner together to produce an effective program. Creating a statewide program from the bottom up definitely comes with its challenges, however, I am very hopeful that this work will culminate with many more Louisiana families having greater access to healthy, fresh food.

My #1 goal for this program has always been to learn as much as I can. I’m proud to say that, thus far, I’ve learned more than I thought possible through the Emerson Hunger Fellowship. As I further experience what this city has to offer, I try to keep in mind that my time here will not be defined by the amount of immediate impact that I can make in 6 months. It will be defined by how much knowledge and experience I can take in and retain to use in my future endeavors in the food security space.


A close-up of a pot of crayfish

Sakeenah Shabazz

For the last five years, I have found myself pursuing all things educational, adventurous, and rooted in the common good. Four of these years were spent at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. with a short stint in Glasgow, Scotland. After graduation, I did a year of service with City Year – Seattle/King County teaching math and social and emotional skills to 5th graders. And most recently, I’ve found myself living in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city where many of its residents live by the phrase “Laissez le bons temps rouler” or “Let the good times roll.” Some how, my experience as an Emerson Fellow has managed to facilitate all three of these pursuits and for that, I am deeply appreciative.

In June 2016, I learned that I had been placed with the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University New Orleans. For a brief moment, I convinced myself that the Emerson Program Staff, Jon and Albert, would keep me in Seattle, WA, even though I knew that was unlikely. They ask us to trust the process and to be open. I felt “established” in Seattle, mostly because I had spent the last year there teaching, I had a new bed, new friends, and cheap rent in one of America’s most expensive cities. I was wrong. I left Seattle in late August and moved to New Orleans after our field training ended.

Having come from an undergraduate institution with a Catholic-Jesuit identity, Loyola automatically felt like a familiar place. The JSRI’s mission is to transform the Gulf South through action research, analysis, education, and advocacy on the core issues of poverty, race, and migration. Some of their work includes the Just South Index, a measurement of progress and regress related to social justice in the Gulf South, and The State of Working Mississippi, a historical examination of the state’s labor and economic opportunities. This is their first year hosting an Emerson Fellow and their first stride toward the inclusion of hunger and food insecurity into their core body of work. This was the brainchild the JSRI’s Economic Policy Specialist, Jeanie Donovan, who also serves as my field site supervisor.

For the last three months I’ve been working on a two-part project focused on SNAP participation in Louisiana. The first part is the SNAP Story Bank Project, a digital photo bank and short film that highlights the experiences of SNAP participants and the network of people who help to reduce food insecurity, such as SNAP outreach coordinators, food pantry workers, and community leaders. The second part of the project is a written analysis examining the impact that SNAP has on the local and state economy, health outcomes, and family economic stability. Together, the written analysis and story bank will work in tandem as an advocacy and educational tool for the JSRI and other anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations.

Right now, my most important, yet challenging tasks are to write and interview people across Louisiana. Naturally, I love to talk and connect with people because I’m very social. When I’m out doing story collection, which entails interviewing, audio recording, and photographing/filming people, I have to be open and warm in my approach yet succinct and controlled in my questioning. I have to respect their time, especially if they’re waiting to receive food from a pantry. I have to tread lightly and ask them about the difficulties they’ve faced feeding themselves or their family, which is hard to ask about and even harder to talk about. The most powerful encounters don’t happen with people who are open and cheerful from the get-go, even though their stories are valuable and insightful. One powerful encounter I recall was a family at the market who frequently visited to buy shrimp from a vendor. The husband was a professional chef and throughout our conversation, he emphasized that his family ate good and healthy, and that he just didn’t make a lot of money but he loved his work. They had a solid middle class life but in 2005, they lost everything during Hurricane Katrina. Eleven years later, they’re struggling to recuperate their assets and using SNAP benefits has allowed them to keep their family fed during that process.

There is no single story for people who use SNAP and it is my goal to relay this message to stakeholders, community members, social service agencies, and common folk who think otherwise. Single stories lead to stigma, shame, and discriminatory rhetoric and policies that harm people and families that are just trying to eat. In a state where food is the center of culture, family, tourism, and pride, it is shocking that so many people are food insecure and deal with the physical and social consequences of that deficit.

When the SNAP Story Bank Project is complete, I first want to share it with the people who allowed me to interview them. Without their stories, this project wouldn’t be possible. I want them to feel that their experiences were recognized, valued, and understood. From there, I hope this project will serve as a powerful tool for the JSRI. Personal stories and accurate data are powerful tools for advocacy, especially when those causes are wide spread and are marked by human suffering and the absence of necessities, like access to nutritious foods.

In mid-February, this field placement will end and I’ll head back D.C. for the policy portion of this fellowship. I am still driven by the desire to see the common good and learning opportunities in the work I do. Although D.C. feels like a second home to me, there’s a lot to explore the second time around but not before my placement in New Orleans, or Nola, as it is affectionately called, has come to a close.


Aerial view of New Orleans with Crescent City Connection bridges in the foreground

About the Authors

Marshall headshot

Imani Marshall

Emerson Fellow

Imani Nia Marshall graduated from Amherst College with a degree in political science. At Amherst, Imani served as co-president of Amherst College chapter of GlobeMed, raising awareness of issues of global health equity and social justice. She also served as chapter head of the Roosevelt Institute at Amherst College where she worked to amplify student policy ideas and raise awareness about criminal justice reforms and local economic inequity. Moreover, Imani convinced the college administration to develop better relationships with local minority and women owned businesses. In addition, Imani worked as a research assistant for professors in black studies, women and gender’s studies and political science, working on issues of the representation of black women in films and literature, LGBT rights in Latin America, and environmental justice in America. She also co-authored a systematic review of the use of decision aids with LGBT and minority populations that was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Jones headshot

Deondre’ Jones

Emerson Fellow

Born and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Deondre' graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in economics and a minor in nonprofit studies. During his time in college, Deondre' worked with several different nonprofits, including the anti-human trafficking organization Walk Free. Moreover, he served as the onsite coordinator for the LeaderShape program at NC State, where he helped to develop leaders who are driven by integrity and social change. Deondre' also had the privilege of working with low income communities in both Belize and Costa Rica through the Alternative Service Break program.

Shabazz headshot

Sakeenah Shabazz

Emerson Fellow

Sakeenah grew up in San Diego, California, and graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in philosophy. She spent two summers doing plant biology research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where she explored growth mechanisms in plants and its relation to food production. While at Georgetown, she consecutively served with the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students to bring forth creative programming related to medicine, health disparities and community engagement. Since graduating, Sakeenah has delved into various learning opportunities, most recently as an AmeriCorps Member with City Year- Seattle/King County.

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