City: New Orleans, LAEntrepreneurs: Burnell and Keasha Cotlon
Can you imagine a hurricane ripping through your neighborhood, the only remnant of your neighbor being the steps that once led up to her house? Can you imagine coming home after your street spent two weeks under water, with rescue boats abandoned on the side of the road? Can you imagine no street lights, large ditches in the street, tall blight replacing the homes of your friends? Can you imagine watching your kids board a 4:30am bus to school every day, being transported to schools in other areas because theirs was destroyed?
Can you imagine living somewhere surrounded by none of the businesses (not even a grocery store!) fundamental to the rebuilding of your daily life?
This was the reality of New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, we sat in an auditorium with the residents of Lower 9th Ward and heard the pain in their voices as they admitted they are still facing these realities today. A decade after the devastation of Katrina, finding healthy food in the Lower 9th Ward is more than just a challenge – it’s nearly impossible. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Lower Ninth Ward is considered a “Food Desert.” The nearest full-service grocery story is about 3.5 miles away in St. Bernard Parish, and with 30 percent of residents lacking personal transportation making a trip to Walmart is that much harder — it takes 3 buses to get there. The only local option for food is the nearby gas station.
But on the corner of Caffin and Galvez, in the heart of the Lower 9th Ward, Burnell and Keasha Cotlon have undertaken building the first grocery store since Hurricane Katrina. Lifelong residents of the Lower 9th Ward, the Cotlons have invested their life’s savings into providing food access — fresh, and healthy food — to a neighborhood in dire need. Burnell and Keasha believe that, in addition to bringing food to the area, the store will bring residents and other businesses back to a neighborhood that feels long forgotten by the City of New Orleans.
The Cotlons reason that in order to attract people back to the Lower 9th Ward (only about 36% of the residents have returned), there needs to be a place for people to get food. In order for big box grocery stores to come to the Lower 9th Ward and buy that food, there needs to be enough people to buy. But Burnell didn’t think the residents should have to wait for big box stores, and so, he took matters into his own hands. This is where the issue arises: The only way for the Lower 9th Ward Market to make a difference in the community is to build a great grocery store that can provide the right food, serve more residents, and start revitalizing the community.
Our theme for the week was focus and vision. We asked Burnell, in addition to rebuilding the hope in the Lower 9th Ward: What problem does he want to solve in the next decade? His answer? The food desert. “People here deserve the ability to get healthy food to their families as easy as anyone else.” So that’s where we got started: Making a store that frees the Lower 9th Ward from the food desert.
We worked with Burnell and Keasha to develop a system that would help them keep track of their sales and expenses, along with an easy inventory system to keep track of the products on the shelves. To raise awareness of the store, we developed a marketing plan and materials tailored specifically to the personality of the community. Because, sadly, we couldn’t physically stay in New Orleans after that week to continue this work, much of our efforts was laying the groundwork, largely through partnerships, to keep the momentum once we left — community partnerships with the Mayor’s Office, financial partnerships to start raising working capital, and a wholesale distributor partnership to get the food in at a lower price. We even spent the last day on our hands and knees, sweat running down our faces, as we rearranged shelves and moved products around the store. We learned more about running a small grocery store than we ever expected.
In return, Burnell showed us the power of hope and compassion, of starting a business not to make a profit but rather to bring real change to a community that needs it the most. Spending our days in the store with Burnell, his wife, Kesha, and his mom, Lillie, we couldn’t help but hope that their determination and selflessness would rub off on us. They welcomed us into their family, shared with us their dreams of a better Lower 9th Ward, and inspired us to to continue the mission of placing the needs of others before your own. While they were amazed at how much we taught them in just one week, our team is quick to admit that they taught us so much more.
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, it is easy to walk around the French Quarter and think that New Orleans has finally bounced back. But when you spend some time in the Lower 9th Ward, you see that there is a neighborhood that is still waiting to return to its previously vibrant and connected community. Burnell, Keasha, and Lillie are the real heros who refuse to leave — because, as they put it, “this is home.” They’ve imagined the sustainable community that their neighbors will want to come back to — and are doing the work to make it happen..
If want to help continue our efforts, please visit their GoFundMe page: http://www.gofundme.com/lower9thward