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Comeback Communities: Reversing food deserts with neighborhood grocers


When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, followed by flooding from the levee breaks, food deserts were among the many consequences.

“Neighborhood stores that sold fresh produce were largely gone,” recalls Gary Williams, senior vice president for community and economic development in Louisiana for Hope Community Credit Union. “In 2007, the city formed a food policy advocacy commission to tackle the problem, and backed it up with $14 million. The goal was to attract full-service groceries to underserved neighborhoods. So far, we’ve been successful with five, and three more are in the pipeline.”

A 2012 study by Tulane University found that there was about one supermarket for every 14,000 New Orleans residents, compared to a national ratio of one for every 8,500. 

One of the five groceries chosen for development is Circle Food Store, a 22,000-square-foot grocery at the corner of North Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues that got its name from the spot where streetcars turned around. The neighborhood hub and meet-up spot was flooded and forced to shut down after Hurricane Katrina. All that was left standing was the walls.

Dwayne Boudreaux began working at Circle Food Store in 1987, when he was lured to the business by the original owner, Herbert Gabriel. Boudreaux had proven himself to be a highly productive manager at a very young age at a local chain grocery, wearing a tie every day even when he started out collecting “the buggies” in the parking lot.  Gabriel wanted that professionalism; however, as Boudreaux recalls, the young man learned from the older mentor as well. “I brought kind of a chain atmosphere to Circle Food Store. I fought about gross profit. And (Gabriel) fought about taking care of his customers.”

The combination proved to be a winning one, and over time, Boudreaux says, the two became like father and son. With Gabriel’s encouragement, Boudreaux became the owner in 1995.  

He tells the story of how he got started in the business, and what the store has come to mean to both him and the neighborhood, in the StoryCorps interview you can hear by clicking on the photo below, and which will be featured at the Comeback Communities forum in New Orleans June 18. Attendees also will visit Circle Food that afternoon.

Boudreaux recalls the days when it became clear that his store, both his career and an icon in the neighborhood, were gone.

“I was just winding down my first vacation of more than five days in forever,” says Boudreaux. “When Hurricane Katrina was coming, I was in Rome and called the store and said, ‘I heard there’s a hurricane coming.’ And they said, ‘Oh don’t worry.  It’s going to Florida. It’s not even coming here.’” 

That, of course, is not what happened as he discovered en route back home. “I saw Circle Food Store underwater on CNN,” he remembers. “I called the police department to see if they could get somebody out there and they said, ‘Mister, the interstate’s gone. That’s when I knew that life as I knew it was over.”

For nine years, Boudreaux struggled to get together the financing to rebuild, to no avail, due to the troubled financial markets. That is, until he heard about the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, recommended by the commission and funded in part by Hope Enterprise Corp. Circle Food was selected as a participant. Boudreaux announced in December 2012 that rebuilding could finally move forward, with Hope operating a branch of its credit union in the store.

“Traditional ‘big banks’ have stayed away from the 7th ward neighborhood, while predatory and payday lenders moved in,” says Williams, who will help lead attendees at NeighborWorks’ Comeback Communities event June 18 on a tour of Circle Food and a nearby elementary school Hope is helping to rebuild.

Circle Food also received assistance from federal new-market tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, the state Office of Community Development and the city's Economic Development Fund – totaling $8 million in all. Up to 50 percent of the city’s investment is forgivable after five years, if the commitment to healthy foods and accessibility is maintained.

“My house was flooded after the hurricane as well,” recalls Williams, adding that fortunately, he had moved his wife and two children to his mother’s house in Florida the day before the storm hit. However, the building was filled with five-and-a-half feet of water, and it was more than a year before they could move back in. 

“Hope refocused its business after the storm to better support the people who had been victimized, from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi through New Orleans. It’s been satisfying to be part of that, to help other people get back on their feet.”
Dwayne Boudreaux (left) and Gary Williams

Boudreaux recalls one customer in particular who personifies what Circle Food means to the neighborhood.

“When I went out to the store after the storm, which I did frequently, this one lady came up who had been shopping at Circle Food Store even before I was there.  This lady’s got to be in her late 80s to 90 years old right now. She literally grabbed me, around my knees almost,and said, ‘Mr. Boudreaux, when are you going to open our store back up?  All we have is these littler corner stores here. We don’t have anywhere to buy our fresh fruits and vegetables.’That story touched my heart. That same lady was at the grand opening when we had the grand opening.” 

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