When you move beyond the Sazeracs and po’ boys, the Cochons and the Commander’s Palaces, a bleak picture of how New Orleans really feeds itself emerges. Easy access to fresh produce and healthy dining choices are particularly scarce in low-income neighborhoods. Nationwide, there’s an average of one grocery store for every 8,500 people in a city. In New Orleans, it’s one for every 14,000. The city is one of the most dire food deserts in the United States.
When I moved to New Orleans, just a short while after Hurricane Katrina, I couldn’t stop looking at rooftops. They were cracked and broken and overrun with drippy globes of wisteria, dangling like grapes in the molasses-heavy summer heat. Frothy blooms of white and stalks of green were uninhibited and unapologetic in overtaking blighted properties.
Coming from the hills of Appalachia, I was all too familiar with nature’s desire to reclaim its former terrain—but the aggressiveness of New Orleans plants was something altogether novel. It’s a kind of ravenous beauty that has an insatiable appetite for twining and wrapping itself around whatever’s within reach. New Orleans is a city where roots, shoots, and fruits refuse to be tamed, bursting through slabs of sidewalk cement with lusty fervor. And if you know where to look for it, edible bounty is everywhere.
A small jungle of wild mint grows in a former gas station parking lot in the Upper Ninth Ward that’s ripe for plucking. Zucchini blossoms peep through fencerow cracks across my Central City neighborhood, waiting to be snipped and stuffed with Creole cream cheese.
It’s the forests of fruit trees, heavy with citrus, that Megan Nuismer hopes can help alleviate the city’s problem with food waste. Nuismer initially moved to New Orleans, from Michigan, to study international health. Those plans soon changed. She realized that, as she says, “there are a lot of problems out in the world. There are also a lot of problems to tackle in New Orleans. So I decided to stay.” She founded the New Orleans Fruit Tree Project (NOFTP) in 2011, which harvests excess fruits (primarily lemons, oranges, satsumas, grapefruits, and kumquats) from private properties around New Orleans—stuff that would otherwise rot and go to waste—and donates it to local organizations that feed the hungry.
“All the trees we use are on private property, and we primarily work with homeowners,” Nuismer says. “People are utilizing the fruit that is in public space through urban foraging maps, and that’s great. Our goal, though, is to reduce the amount of wasted fruit in the city, which is mainly the stuff in backyards that people just don’t know what to do with.”
Through five citrus seasons, NOFTP has averaged eight thousand pounds of fresh fruit annually, calling on a small, diverse army of volunteers to pluck ruby-red grapefruits and Meyer lemons from backyards and front stoops across the city. About forty trees are harvested each year as part of a tree-owner network.
“Fresh produce is really a gem in the food-rescue world. People are used to seeing the canned goods and things like that, but when you have a load of satsumas, people get excited,” Nuismer says. “Not only are we providing this food, but we’re also exposing people to different fruits they might’ve never tasted—even though they grow right here in the city. Our mission is, yes, reducing excess fruit, but reminding people that we grow citrus everywhere in New Orleans. Not many places can say that.”
Nuismer’s blue eyes beam when she talks about the project’s tangible success stories. There’s the fruit bowl that now proudly lives in the lobby of the Ruth U. Fertel / Tulane Community Health Center, encouraging visitors to peel a satsuma instead of heading down the street for fried chicken after their check-up. Nuismer talks of filling brown bags with citrus and taking them to various street corners to provide some fresh, local produce to those in need. “I just tell them, ‘Here’s some fresh fruit. I’m not sure what you’re getting all day, but maybe this will taste good.’”
This July, as a means to reach an even greater number of families, NOFTP will officially become a part of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana. The organization also graduated from fruit-collecting to fruit-growing: after noticing that many of the neighborhoods receiving the produce didn’t have fruit trees in their yards themselves, the NOFTP, through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, rooted fifty new citrus trees (lemons, satsumas, and kumquats) around the city.
“What these trees will end up doing, I’m not sure,” Nusimer modestly muses. “People were so excited, though! Everyone wanted trees once they saw us around planting fruit trees. One of the homes we did, the woman had never owned a house before, so it was extra special to plant a tree for the future on her property. You’re part of this person’s new life. It’s a real investment.”