Photos by Cara Coren
Who is Cattail Cooks, what is your mission, and whom do you support?
Cattail Cooks is a collective of chefs and food system activists with a desire and passion to cook food that is not only true to ourselves, our communities, and our culture but tells a story that accurately represents and pays homage to the farmers, fishers, ranchers, crabbers, ecology, and food communities of the Gulf South. We are part catering company and storytelling project. Grace Treffinger and I are both from New Orleans, went to culinary school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and have worked in restaurants all around the city and world. We both came back to Louisiana at the same time with a desire to create a stronger and more resilient food system in New Orleans and the Gulf South– one that was equitable for the people who operate within it and sustainably, both economically and environmentally. A huge part of our work is organizing around coastal land loss and climate change. It’s all interwoven together. We see food as something that we can all connect to and as an easy entry point for people to understand what is happening to our climate and to our ecosystem, especially in southeast Louisiana.
On the catering side we teach classes and cook for events, specifically for organizations that align with our mission. We see it as coalition building. And it’s really hard for people to find caterers who source local produce, who pay living wages, and who cook food that has integrity. We often are able to include some food storytelling into the meals that we cook.
We also do a lot of organizing work for our local food system, whether that’s with the food policy council or with local farmers and chefs. Over the past year of buying and working with the farmers, we have formed really important relationships. We know their names, how they grow their food, and whether they are struggling or not. This is important to us because we just don’t see this work as a business. We are a community.
When quarantine started, we lost all of our gigs. Many of our farmer friends lost their restaurant clientele as well. There was an excess of food yet many people were struggling to buy food while their unemployment or whom didn’t have access to federal assistance at all. So we started collecting donated money from friends, family, community members and used that money to buy local produce from farmers to deliver to families. For us, this is mutual aid. It’s all volunteer based. We don’t get paid even though we spend 30+ hours a week organizing this work. We now support 130 families and buy thousands of dollars a week from local producers.
And to be clear, this amount of volunteer time and this system is not sustainable. We are doing this work to support our community during this crisis because people have urgent basic needs but it is also showing us how broken our food system and society is. We know that before Covid19, our community members and local farmers were struggling and suffering with making ends meet. Food insecurity and food waste are baked into a system that exploits people and the land. Through this horrible crisis, more people are becoming aware of the need for a strong local food system for our survival. We hope that through this we will strengthen our networks of support and mutual aid and also develop paths to have more folks support local farmers year-round, train more farmers, and make local fresh food truly accessible to all. We will continue to organize because we have a lot of work to do!
Walk us through an average day. Where do you get your food from, how do you distribute it, how many people do you feed?
We do deliveries twice a week. 65 families on Saturday and 65 families on Monday. On Tuesdays, we start ordering food from farmers around the city. We have a few specific farmers we work with. Indian Springs Farmers’ Cooperative (predominately black farmers from MS), VEGGI Cooperative in New Orleans East (an effort started in the Vietnamese community after many lost their income from shrimping due to the BP Oil Spill), Compostalla who grows lettuce, Local Cooling Farms and Greener Pastures who provide us with pasture-raised eggs, and River Queen Greens. From Tue-Friday night we answer emails, call grocery stores for donations, search for boxes to package food in, try to collect donations, organize spreadsheets. On Thursdays, we meet with farmers to pick up produce. On Fridays, we send emails to volunteer drivers with instructions and addresses as well as recipients.
On Saturdays and Mondays, we sanitize and pack the grocery boxes. This all started from our house, with our six roommates being the sole volunteers. Now this has grown so much so we were able to move our operations to Press Street Station. Once the food is sanitized it is placed in a box or a bag. We have designed our systems so that each box should feed a household of 4 and each bag a household of two. Once the boxes are packed with fresh produce, eggs, dry goods, and any other donated foods, we load them into our volunteers’ cars. Then we clean-up, bring our compost to a local community garden, and run any final errands. The days are long but we are getting faster and faster at this which feels good.
How has your attitude toward food changed during the pandemic?
I feel really inspired by all of the work people are doing right now to get people food and how much we are able to work in solidarity with other mutual aid efforts and people around town. I also feel extremely frustrated and angry at how our food system encourages such extreme amounts of food waste where it makes more sense financially for farmers to till thousands of pounds of food directly into the soil rather than get it to people who need it. Again, not quite on this level but this type of food waste because of our industrial capitalist food system was happening before Covid19. I think it’s really clearly wrapped up in us as a society weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels, but that needs to happen on a systemic level so it makes me really fired up to support people growing food locally, support more farmer training, and develop better local food distribution so that everyone has access. I try to imagine our food being driven from no more than a few hours away, farmworkers being paid living wages, regenerative farming that does not depend on fossil fuels, everyone having access to fresh healthy (and delicious) produce and to work towards those goals step by step. Food is a really helpful and accessible way to talk about everything else and this experience has made it even more clear for me. I’m also gardening more and enjoying exchanging seeds and knowledge with friends. 🙂 -Grace
What safety precautions do you take? Do you wear PPE? If so, how do you obtain it?
We all wear masks and everything gets sanitized. As soon as it is sanitized, it is put on a drying rack and either immediately gets put into the sanitized boxes. We have a system set up so that we have one side of Press Street Station with our sanitizing stations and the other side with our clean boxes and food. There is a blue line of tape that marks the sanitized zone from the unsanitized zone. We also advise all of our recipients to clean the food on their own as well as we cannot guarantee in the time that it goes from us to them, something could get contaminated. We are doing the best we can when it comes to sanitation.
How do you find the families you support? How can they find you?
We started finding families to support by putting blasts on the FB group called Mutual Aid — New Orleans, started by a local DSA member. Grace also translated the information to Spanish and shared it with Congreso de Jornaleros/Congress of Day Laborers. We would just tell people what we were doing and to email me if they need support. We don’t ask for much information from the families. That’s the problem with most food relief organizations. There is an income eligibility or you are required to provide documentation. Many of our families don’t speak English and are undocumented, which is why they are reaching out to us in the first place. We don’t ask you for your story or for you to explain your situation. If you need support and you need food, we trust you.
Right now we are currently at capacity but if you are in need, please email us at email@example.com with the above information and we will put you on our waitlist. We are looking to expand soon to support more families. We can also redirect you to other groups doing mutual aid/food relief like New Orleans Mutual Aid Society, GNO Caring Collective, or Familias Unidas en Acción.
How many people do you work with? What is the recruitment process like?
This started with my 4 housemates (and two partners who were quarantining with us!) and friends who could help us deliver food. The six of us pack pretty much alone.
Our drivers are all volunteers who have either found us on FB and want to get involved in what we are doing or they are our friends who have offered to help. We try to distribute the work as equally as possible and ask for help from people to go pick up produce or boxes so we don’t have to do all the work.
You seem to foster relationships with the families you feed. Can you share a story or two, maybe from both ends of the spectrum?
Some of the families who are on our list are people who we know personally but most of them we have never met before. When we first started this, we would get long emails with people sharing their whole story with us, how they were a single mom trying to support their three kids while being sick or who had never been without an income like this. It has been extremely sad to read people’s situations and to hear the desperation and need that they are going through right now. And when we get emails from people who desperately need food even when our list is full, what are we supposed to do? Tell them no? There have been times where I go into our own fridge and cabinet to make spontaneous deliveries to people who really need it.
How can those who are interested in your mission get involved?
If you want to support our Food Relief Efforts you can make monetary donations to @cattailcooks on Venmo, through Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org), or on GoFundMe. We have raised over $22,000 just from the everyday person like yourself donating– $10, $20, $100. That’s what has been so hopeful about this whole situation. So many people have donated and supported us where they can. We don’t have any corporate sponsors or large donors. Just average people. I kinda like to think of it as a redistribution of wealth.
If you want to get on our volunteer list, fill out this form.
If you do have the ability, source your food from local farms. Get to know the people growing and distributing your food. Put your money in the hands of real people, our community, not in the hands of corporations like Whole Foods and Amazon. Do this when the pandemic is over.
And beyond that, I just advise that everyone check up on your neighbors and the people around you. There are people struggling all around us, many of whom we don’t know about.
What other organizations around the state, country, or globe are doing similar work? Who do you wanna shout out?
There are small mutual aid groups around the world who are doing this work. We have been on some organizing calls trying to get support and advice from other groups who are doing similar work to us. We are about to start a partnership with GNO Caring Collective, who is doing super badass and liberating work. SPROUT NOLA has been doing local farm work advocacy for a long time. They have been delivering plant starts to people all around the city for free so people can start their own gardens and feed themselves. Marguerite Green also deserves a big shout out for basically coordinating all the local food to the right markets. She is the real deal and a huge mentor to us. New Orleans Mutual Aid Society is doing awesome work of providing daily cooked meals and weekly grocery bags to families in need. Familias Unidas en Accion is also doing the crucial work of providing boxes of groceries to families. Southern Solidarity is another recently formed group driving around providing food and supplies to our community members living on the streets.
In your opinion, what’s the future of urban farming post-pandemic?
It’s hard to tell. Our situation is constantly changing. When the pandemic first happened all these farms had nowhere to sell their food without markets and restaurants. There was a huge supply and no demand. Now, many farms and organizations have figured out ways to do local distribution which is now in HIGH demand. We’re seeing a scarcity of local food. Just last week, our egg vendors told us they couldn’t sell 95 dozen eggs to us anymore because they can sell their eggs to customers at market price through delivery distribution and get a better price. It’s also a more reliable sustainable income selling directly to customers/CSAs because we don’t know how long we’ll be doing this food relief effort. Currently farmers are planting for the summer season. If they see there is a huge demand now for food and scale up their production to meet the demand, will that demand still exist when the pandemic is over? That’s why it is important for us to create long term structures and solutions to our local food system, not just flood the markets. Grace and I aren’t going to do this forever and when we stop doing deliveries one day, what kind of gaps will that leave in our farmers’ supply? Hopefully we will have some gigs when all of this is over and we can help direct some of their sales towards that. But what would our local food system look like if every restaurant was doing this? If every grocery store sourced as much as they could from local farmers? If more people were buying from farmers’ markets?
Thank you everyone. Please stay safe and in isolation. We stand in solidarity with you and reach out if you need support. – Sierra and Grace at Cattail Cooks
To anyone who is struggling, here is a list of the resources out there!
- N.O. Food Policy Advisory Committee Food Access/Relief
- Information on school meals, food banks, produce box delivery and SNAP/TEFAP program
- New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee
- A compiled list of information on food relief, CSAs, food delivery, pick-ups
- Greater New Orleans Caring Collective
- Can deliver supplies (diapers, wet wipes, etc…), food, provide laundry service, and offer financial assistance
- Schools offering meals to children
- Mutual Aid – New Orleans Facebook page
- A group to post needs/questions to support one another during this time
- Free family meals at Toup’s Meatery at 3pm daily
- List of compiled resources (Spanish and English)
- Information on food relief, know your rights, rent support, etc…
- Free meals and discounted food
- New Orleans Mutual Aid Society
- Providing daily prepared meal deliveries and weekly grocery and supply deliveries