Ana Kostioukova ’11 Sows Seeds for Healthier Lives in New Orleans Ninth Ward

Ana Kostioukova is one CMC student making a difference in an urban area hit hard by catastrophic storms and grinding poverty. Read her story here, one in a series of articles profiling CMC students and their summer internships.

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Name: Anastasia Kostioukova

Major: Environment, Economics and Politics (EEP)

Summer Internship: Planting, growing, and selling fruit and vegetables at the Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG)** in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to help alleviate food shortages there, while also encouraging healthier eating habits. The Lower Ninth Ward was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, but shortages of every kind have existed in the neighborhood since long before the storm.

Future Ambitions: Long term, Ana would like to attend law school. She is currently working with William Ascher (the Donald C. McKenna Professor of Government and Economics) on her senior thesis regarding “Social Safety Nets” advocated by the World Bank. During winter break she hopes to return to Thailand to carry out research on the topic. “This means I need to begin catching up on my Thai, which has pretty much deteriorated since being abroad,” she says.

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CMC: Tell us about the OSBG

Ana: The OSBG stands at a crossroads of environment, economics and politics. The common link is food. Residents of the Lower Ninth Ward experience both physical and economical barriers to accessing fresh vegetables and fruit. The neighborhood is a food desert, an area where affordable healthy produce is virtually unobtainable. People depend on local corner shops or liquor stores, which charge high prices on processed productshigh in calories and low in nutrition. Supermarkets have little incentive to build in poor neighborhoods. What such communities lack in numbers of grocery stores, they make up in the plethora of fast food chains.

Food also is an indicator of socioeconomic wellbeing, health, and opportunity. Where a lack of fresh produce is found, failing public education systems are likely to be present as well.

A poor diet leads to severe health complications such as obesity, hypertension and heart disease, among other illnesses. Sadly, socioeconomic levels, more often than not, are drawn upon racial lines. African-American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children. Consequentially, they are more likely to develop childhood obesity.

Recognizing these societal links and injustices, OSBG was recently created. Our sprouts operation began as a means to raise funds for the school. We rely heavily on the hard work of student volunteers across the country who visit our community to learn about environmental and social justice. Despite our modest beginnings in April 2010, we have gained many loyal customers. OSBG hopes to continue growing quality greens and spreading our message.

CMC: And how does your internship figure in to OSBG’s plan at large?

Ana: Part of my internship is figuring out what we can plant and sell which will bring in the most revenue to the school. The focus here isn’t on “economies of scale;” we aren’t trying to grow only one product and hoping to make money. The strategy I decided to use is to figure out what can we plant at a low cost/low risk foundation, and mark up by putting a little extra labor into it, besides harvestingan example of this is jam or pesto sauce.

Selling sprouts is a method for the school to raise money by supplying to high-end restaurants throughout the city and at markets. The school also holds its own farmer’s market on Sundays. As are most small grassroots movements/nonprofits, OSBG is plagued by a lack of funds. Although they have won several grants, it’s a sporadic, unreliable way of earning money. However, selling sprouts while also spreading our message, involves educating the public about these issues outside of the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.

CMC: Have you parlayed any knowledge from your time in the Study Abroad program into your work with OSBG?

Ana: Yes. Recently, I did some research on loofah. Studying in Thailand I remembered that villagers planted their own “sponge plants” for washing and cleaning. A lot people believe that loofahs come from the sea but they are actually a vine, gourd-like plantthink squash on a vine. It has been used by Asian and African cultures for centuries. The plant is perfectly adapted to Gulf Coast weather and the maturation takes about 4-5 months, which is a long time. However, the edible flowers could be sold to restaurants for cooking them in the interim. Also the vines/leaves are a natural pesticide/insecticide, which means they are low maintenance. Once the gourd matures, you peel and “milk it,” basically squeeze all the liquid out. Then you dry it, and if you choose, you can dye it a color or bleach it. Voila! You’ve got yourself a sponge. We can sell it at the French Quarter, or wherever, with our OSBG message attached.

It’s a sustainable product with an important message; basically we are taking advantage of the fact that people are becoming more environmentally aware. This sponge is 100 percent organic and decomposable, and your purchase will support a school, which works with youth in a struggling community. What’s not to like about that?

I am also currently looking into regulations about pickling (another value-added method) okra, which we are about to have a large harvest of.

CMC: How did you arrange your internship?

Ana: My study abroad program (CIEE Khon Kaen, Thailand), focused a lot on grassroots movements and the underbelly of development and globalization. In a way it seeks to show the most privileged people of the world, U.S. college students, how the rest of the world lives. By exposing us to these inequalities, the program seeks to inspire each one who is changed by the experiences to change the world and fight for a cause they believe in.

In 1994, a group of students returning from the program decided to start a network ENGAGE (Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange) that seeks to take lessons from activism in Thailand and apply them in the United States. A former study-abroad student is now an educator at OSBG, and I began talking to him about the possibility of interning during the summer.

CMC: You’ve said that before coming here to study you didn’t think race was still much of an issue in the United States. Since then, you say that confronting your own feelings about the issue has been “difficult at best, and excruciating at its worst.”

Ana: I learned my place in the world by seeing myself as someone who lives in the United States. Now I am learning my place in the States by seeing myself as a white female. Obviously these facts are apparent and obvious, but when you put those characteristics in perspective and start comparing and contrasting, it is a very uncomfortable place to stand. Ignorance is bliss, while the knowledge of my privileges fuels both guilt and panic within myself.

New Orleans tends to bring me back to that same woozy feeling. The city has a majority population (67.3 percent) of black people. However, the majority of the wealth is concentrated among the white population.

Having a white skin is a privilege and an advantageous situation that I did nothing to earn. The way our society is currently structured, if you are born white, your chances of being healthy, safe, and educated increase. Obviously it is not a rule nor a cause and effect, just a portrait of how unequal things are. These inequalities may not be apparent if you grow up in a wealthy neighborhood and attend good schools. There, we are taught that all are equal. For me, growing up in California, inequality was always a question of socioeconomic status, rather than race. However, these inequalities became one and the same when I came to New Orleans.

**OSBG will soon become Growing Power Inc.’s south regional training center. Will Allen, the founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., was named to TIME magazine’s list of “Most Influential People in the World” in 2010.