Cut Short by COVID-19, New Orleans Food Conference Ends on Message of Collective Action

By Tiffani Patton 

New Orleans is one of my favorite US cities (the food, the music, the warmth of the people, and the climate!), so I was happy to hear that The National Good Food Network Conference was being held there. And I was beyond excited when The Wallace Center, the conference host, invited me to moderate a plenary panel. While fears of COVID-19 loomed large, I’m glad I had the opportunity for an  inspiring in-person meeting (probably for some time) with the food activist community that so inspires me.

Farmworkers, farmers, educators, advocates, food hub leaders from around the US came together for this convening. New Orleans was not just a backdrop for the conference, its residents and movements were featured throughout. The Congo Square Preservation Society opened the conference with a rhythmic song and drum performance, a joyful reminder that we were in the birthplace of jazz and much American music. Off-site visits included tours of local food business Grow Dat Youth Farm and the Whitney Plantation. A majority of the food we ate was sourced from local farms, and I attended a riveting plenary “The New Orleans Food System: Historical Inequities and Efforts for Equitable Economic Development” featuring local leaders. 

The conference took place the week of March 10th, as COVID-19 was beginning to escalate and spread around the US—and we could feel it in the air. Some panelists chose not to travel and were Zoomed in to their plenaries and sessions, with great success. Each day, the main ballroom became more spacious as attendees left early due to fears of potential city and state closures. We were all bombarded with news of immediate, local food system impacts: restaurants shuttering, school closures and rapid efforts to continue meal programs, small farms losing much-needed market channels, loss of volunteers at food banks, to name a few. As tensions heightened, The Wallace Center convened a packed, emergency breakout session on COVID-19 and its impacts on our local food systems. Attendees, myself included, brainstormed some possible short-term impacts and responses. The session confirmed my own concerns, opened my eyes to new ones and, at the same time, gave me much-needed hope: there was so much passion into the room that I couldn’t help but feel encouraged knowing that brilliant, caring minds were working on this (you can see the memo that came out of the session here). 

On the final day, I moderated the plenary panel, “Act Locally, Think Globally: How Macro Trends Affect Our Food System and What We Can Do About It,” highlighting how the racial wealth gap, changes to the farm economy and farmland loss, food worker justice, climate change, and technology impact our food system. We put together an amazing group of panelists to speak to these trends: Rodney Foxworth of Common Future, Brennan Washington of Southern SARE, Angela Chalk of Healthy Community Services, Vincent Kimura of Smart Yields (and a special shout out to Christina Spach of Food Chain Workers Alliance who was unfortunately unable to join us!). The plenary topic took on new relevance and importance as the realization that we were in the midst of a global pandemic sank in. The panelists focused on the strategies their communities are using to address structural problems in our food system, build power, and create opportunities. We addressed the elephant in the room—the novel coronavirus—and the outlook remained hopeful. Each panelist reminded the audience that with our collective action we can get through anything. 

The plenary ended up closing out the conference, which was canceled in its final hours due to the spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana (and primarily in New Orleans). And although it wasn’t planned, the final message of the power of collective action was exactly what was needed as we left the conference early to return home, just in time to prepare for the new quarantine reality.


Header image (L-R): Vincent Kimura, Brennan Washington, Angela Chalk, Tiffani Patton. Rodney Washington, who joined via Zoom, is not pictured.