Wednesday, August 5, 2015

In the Zone

"Food desert" is a term referring to an urban phenomenon where there is limited access to fresh food and produce. Often, residential "food deserts" are poor neighborhoods, without well-stocked grocery stores, supermarkets or farmers markets. Adding insult to injury, poor residents also often lack transportation, and are unable to travel outside their neighborhood for fresh food.

It's not just poor neighborhoods that can be food deserts - tourist neighborhoods and hipster enclaves can also be lacking in good sources of fresh basic ingredients, no matter how many fancy restaurants, cocktail lounges, and music venues they feature.

Though I've been in New Orleans just over two weeks, I've already learned that there are no well-stocked supermarkets in the Bywater. Since I'm going to be attending University of New Orleans, I've decided to do my grocery shopping at the Rouse's supermarket near campus on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

This is about five and a half miles from my house. By New Orleans standards, this seems a long way to go, but by Los Angeles standards, it's nothing. Our house in rural Topanga Canyon was seven to eight miles away from the nearest supermarket.

But when all you need is  a quart of milk, or maybe couple of limes for your cuba libre, residents of poor urban neighborhoods rely on small convenience stores, and we have several here in the Bywater/Marigny.

You can buy a six pack of beer up the street at Jimmy's. At Frady's One-stop you can get a pound of French roast ground coffee. You can also get one of the best po'-boy sandwiches in town, and baked macaroni on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But the best, and most unique local convenience stores is Mardi Gras Zone down on Royal Street in the Marigny.

Mardi Gras Zone started out as a wholesaler for carnival souvenirs. But in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, returning neighbors had a hard time finding food and water, so owner Benny Naghi, whose family moved to New Orleans from Iran when he was a child, decided to stock some grocery basics at the front of the warehouse.

Little by little, he added more and more, until now, the first floor of the building is a full-fledged grocery store, with a prepared foods case and a po'boy counter. Recently, he added a pizzeria, with a wood-fired oven.

Like most convenience stores, pricing is a bit on the high side. But selection is great, with many healthful and organic offerings, and local brands. Much of the produce is said to come from Naghi's own family farm in the country. I haven't tried the fruits and vegetables yet, but I will say the limes I bought there one evening were ripe and full of juice, instead of rock-hard green bombs you get at many supermarkets.

Feather boas
The carnival supplies are upstairs, and it's a little surreal to wander around up there among the masks and sequins, looking down at the grocery racks stocked with slow-cooking grits, Camellia-brand red beans, and herbal tea.

One afternoon we went in and bought po'boys for lunch. [The Man I Love] got a fried shrimp sandwich, while mine was called the "NOLA Italian," and was piled high with ham, salami, and pepperoni, with a dressing of olive salad and slices of American cheese.

There's a bulletin board with neighborhood messages, and there are racks for free alternate newspapers and local rags. You can buy a pack of cigarettes, but you can't buy alcohol - the neighborhood association opposed MGZ's application for a license to sell liquor.

But if you need a pizza and a feather boa to go with it, it's the best place in town.


smalltownme said...

I want that sandwich!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

If it wasn't for the farmers' market, the neighborhood where I work would be limited to the little Cenex station and its convenience store. I'm not quite sure what people buy there beyond beer and snacks. There is a grocery store a mile away, but hauling groceries for a mile isn't optimal... I know, because I did it as a college student.