Today I drove from NOLA to Baton Rouge to attend a meeting in the Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood, a predominantly black, very low-income community that is nearly completely lacking in fresh food options, and whose population suffers from disproportionately high rates of obesity and diabetes. I visited a small educational garden in a lot across the street from a Black Muslim center (which, interestingly, is located in a storefront that used to be a grocery store). In the garden where a 10-year-old boy named Joseph gave me a tour of the raised beds. The project is one of a handful of endeavors spearheaded by Carl Motsenbocker, an LSU horticulture professor who has taken an interest in the community and involved his students in direct service projects there. Carl, also the local Slow Food chapter president, convened the meeting. It took place in McKinley High School, the first black public school in the state.
I had been a bit concerned that the attendees would largely be eager college students and Slow Food enthusiasts – neither particularly representative of the community - but was very pleasantly surprised to find myself in the most diverse community-based planning session I have thus far been to. Attendees, the majority of whom were black, included three women from a local civic organization, the former principal of the high school, the Imam from the Black Islamic center, an LSU nutrition professor, a community-university relations officer, a youth group leader, and a middle-aged man with a black cowboy hat, alligator skin boots, a belt buckle the size of a large starfish, and a self-described recent obsession with urban gardening.
Overall, the meeting was inspiring, in that it truly felt like a planning event for the community by the community. These are folks who have a vested interest in the place they live and seem truly committed to being involved in opportunities that serve to benefit their community. And that's a wonderful thing to witness.