Share Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email A sculptor can see the potential in a piece of clay, take that vision and transform it into a beautiful work of art. Rashida Ferdinand, founder and executive director of Sankofa Community Development Corporation in New Orleans, Louisiana, brings that spirit of an artist to her organization’s efforts to revitalize the city’s Lower 9th Ward. Sankofa CDC is one of 23 grantees participating in The Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local and Equitable (FreshLo) initiative and is a partner to the American Cities Program. Following years of working as an artistic sculptor, Ferdinand founded Sankofa CDC in 2008 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the neighborhood. Today, as recovery from that storm continues, another disaster threatens the same community – COVID-19. But amidst these ongoing crises, residents are using their expertise and experience to address their community’s most pressing challenges. Many are working together to strengthen their neighborhood and improve their quality of life. One challenge facing residents in the Lower Ninth is a lack of resources and amenities, such as a grocery or hardware store, that many people expect to have where they live. These basic amenities can support neighborhood growth and attract new families. “We don’t have a system for our growth and development. That is the work that we’re doing here with Sankofa; working with government agencies, corporations, foundations and other groups who help facilitate that type of growth,” Ferdinand said. Ferdinand sees parallels between shaping clay into art and shaping a thriving community while living in harmony with natural surroundings. Disparities between the Lower Ninth and Orleans Parish In 2000, roughly 14,000 New Orleanians made homes and raised families in the Lower Ninth, 98% of whom were Black residents. Average household income in the neighborhood was just under $40,000, compared to $62,000 among households throughout Orleans Parish, the local jurisdiction within which the Lower Ninth is located. Roughly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, the population in the Lower Ninth dropped to 4,378, and is still largely home to Black residents and families. And in the five years following 2014, average household income in the Lower Ninth declined to roughly $34,000 despite an increase among households in Orleans Parish to $69,000. This rapid decline in population density as well as the decrease in household income makes the Lower Ninth less attractive to prospective big-box grocers. In a neighborhood where 93% of current residents are Black, compared to 59% in Orleans Parish overall, inadequate access to fresh foods in the Lower Ninth, and its related impacts, reflect significant systemic inequities that fall along racial lines. The fight for food security In a city known for its culinary delights, many families in the Lower Ninth struggle with food insecurity. Lower Ninth residents live in a food desert. Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as any low-income census tract that has at least 500 residents and no grocery store within one mile. In the Lower Ninth, the nearest grocery store is nearly two miles away, Ferdinand said, and many in the area lack reliable transportation, making it difficult to reach and transport healthy foods back to their homes. “We don’t have consistent access to fresh food in the neighborhood,” Ferdinand explained. “We have a higher concentration of processed foods, foods that are high in salt and sugar. And the stores that do offer fresh food have higher prices. People want to have a place to get food that they need.” Without access to healthy food, people are more likely to develop obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes – health conditions that also make them more susceptible to diseases like the coronavirus. That’s why in 2010, Sankofa CDC began a weekly Farmers Market to offer fresh produce. Two years later, Sankofa CDC started a mobile market to help expand access to healthy food, especially for older adults. Today, the mobile market operates in four different locations. After obtaining seed funds and land, Sankofa CDC opened the Fresh Stop Market produce stand in 2015. In addition to the Fresh Market programs, Sankofa CDC operates a farm where they grow organic produce and herbs. Sankofa CDC provides heart healthy fresh groceries at its Fresh Food Pantry and helps residents with SNAP enrollment or renewal assistance. Through a Healthy HeartBeats program supported by FreshLo, community health ambassadors train their peers and teach classes on healthy food preparation methods and ways to adopt healthier habits to lower their blood pressure and support their cardiovascular health. After the onset of COVID-19 and many people lost their livelihoods, the food pantry expanded its operations from one to five days a week, providing food to nearly 800 households a month. Plans for the future While addressing immediate needs in the community, Ferdinand said that Sankofa CDC is still moving forward with plans to build a new Sankofa Community Resource Center on Saint Claude Avenue, one of the area’s main thoroughfares. They expect to break ground next month on what will be a 2,952 square foot building anchored by a community-led teaching kitchen, along with a produce retail store and a coffee shop. The center will open in early 2021. “We’re really excited to do this project and engage with community stakeholders to develop our Lower Ninth Main Street Program, which is for planning commercial revitalization and bringing businesses back to this area, as well as preserving buildings,” Ferdinand said. “And we not only want to preserve buildings, we want to preserve the stories and people’s memories and experiences from living in the neighborhood and find out what they would look forward to having in the future for themselves and their families, their kids, grandkids.” After a CVS Pharmacy in the neighborhood closed, they’re now exploring with partners how that space can be transitioned into a wellness center with a licensed pharmacist, a job readiness program and a full food pantry. Despite the physical distancing restrictions required in response to COVID-19, Sankofa CDC uses available technology to gain residents’ input on what they want to see in their neighborhood. Like many today, they are reaching people by phone and online calls. Across all of its projects, Sankofa CDC has remained committed to participatory governance by and for local residents to identify issues and use their strengths and experience to lead efforts to resist and rise in the face of a host of challenges. “How do we look at development?” Ferdinand asked. “Is it external approach for investors to have an idea of how they can make money and what could look good in a community, or is it coming from the voice and needs of people who live in the space? We can look at it from the lens of public health and generational wellness, which addresses the need for resources and spaces that promote health and wellness.” To support community-based development that celebrates food culture and creates equity nationwide, Sankofa CDC serves on the Steering Committee for the Equitable Food Oriented Development Collaborative, which works to advance “organizations that use food and agriculture to create economic opportunities, healthy neighborhoods, and explicitly seek to build community assets, pride, and power by and with historically marginalized communities.” Though they are known for improving food access, Sankofa CDC is also working with groups that focus on affordable housing and development and partnering with the city’s Sewerage and Water Board to build a Wetland Park and Nature Trail in the Lower Ninth Ward. “Food is cultural. Food is connected to health. But this is as significant to us as your mental health, your environmental health, and being active in your community growth and planning,” Ferdinand said. “We have a special place here in the Lower Ninth Ward. At Sankofa, we’re doing layers of work to lead and support progressive development that not just restores the neighborhood to what it was, but creates a real vision that is positive, has hope, and uses best practice models that can be sustainable,” Ferdinand said. The power for true transformation lies within the community. By working together with residents, much like a sculptor, Sankofa CDC is helping to shape a future in which all Lower Ninth residents can thrive.