Mr. Okra – A New Orleans Icon


I met Mr. Okra by chance on my way to the Jazz Fest this past May. He is a large man with an ear-to-ear smile and a voice that must be heard to be appreciated.

Mr. Okra truck

“I have eating pears and bananas,” he cried out from a colorful truck, full of fresh produce.

Arthur J. Robinson, nicknamed, “Mr. Okra” had just sold some produce to a woman unable to leave her home. His paid helper, a much younger and spry man jumped out of the Mr. Okra truck and delivered food to the woman with a smile.

This is how Mr. Okra has been selling his produce, including okra, from his colorful truck for decades, There’s even a short film by The Nom de Guerre filmmakers called, “Mr. Okra” (watch here) that tells his colorful story.

As he rides slowly down the streets of New Orleans, he announces by almost singing in a cadence all his own, the produce he has to sell; “I have oranges and bananas, I have eatin’ apples, I have cantaloupe, I have the mango, I have tangerine, I have garlic green, I have pinapple, I have merliton….”

Merliton or mirliton (pronounced meliton)

Merliton or mirliton (pronounced meliton) is a unique vegetable grown mostly in the deep south and was a backyard staple in South Louisiana. Virtually unknown anywhere else, this vegetable originally comes from South America and is now grown in many warm weather climates. Unfortunately, heirloom mirlitons were nearly wiped out by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav.

Each morning begins with loading up his hand-painted pick-up truck with fresh fruits and vegetables and slowly driving through the neighborhoods of Bywater, Tremé and the 9th Ward. His Cajun cadence is melodic, bellowing from the speakers mounted atop his truck and drawing people from out of their homes to buy what items he has available that day.

The Peoples Grocery in Oakland, California started out by doing much the same thing, by bringing the food to people living in poor neighborhoods. Most of them can not afford to get to a supermarket where a variety of fruits and vegetables is available.

Instead, these neighborhoods are caught in a cycle of purchasing low nutrient foods, high in sodium, fats and sugars (See: ANDI – Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) . All of these communities in West Oakland, Bywater, Tremé and the 9th Ward have one thing in common; they live in, what is now referred to as, “food deserts“.

Dr. Bob and Mr. Okra in new 2006 Ford f150.

Mr. Okra serves these communities by giving them access to nutrient rich foods. He does this with a style and flair uniquely his own. By delivering his goods fresh to the people most in need, he has become a highly visible icon and local hero.

In late 2009 the Mr. Okra truck, painted by Dr. Bob, started having engine problems. When this news got out, a group consisting of Tom Thayer of DBA, Nom De Guerre filmmakers, Ronnie Lamarque and his crew at Lamarque Ford, the Mayor’s office, River Parish Disposal, and hundreds of concerned customers, friends, and proponents of Nola culture came together to help.

On May 20, 2010 a benefit concert to buy him a new truck was held at dba on Frenchman Street. Bands including Morning 40 Federation and the Happy Talk Band played in support of the new truck, and Morning 40 had the distinction of being painted on the truck by beloved New Orleans artist Dr. Bob.

Short film, "Mr. Okra" by Nom De Guerre Films.

In true sustainable fashion, some local museums are interested in buying the old truck and extending its usefulness for years to come.

Mr. Okra is a living reminder of a bygone era in the early 1800s, where people would sing, dance, and play drums in accordance with their African traditions in Congo Square, in what is known today as the French Quarter.  Vendors filled the streets of New Orleans and Congo Square, chanting their offerings such as coffee and calas.

Today, if you’re in New Orleans and hear the sing song voice call out, “I have eatin’ apples, I have merliton…”, run and get your fresh fruits and vegetables from a living legend who continues to build community and improve the health and wellness of people in New Orleans.

To support the maintenance and upkeep on Mr. Okra’s truck, please go to: http://nomdeguerre.tv/foundation.html.

Resources:

Video of Mr. Okra
Merliton History
The Peoples Grocery
Supporting Local Food Culture

MyPlate Symbolizes A New Health-Conscious Generation


Today June 2, 2011, is a turning point in our government’s attitude toward the “American diet”.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the federal government’s new food icon, MyPlate, replacing the familiar and often confusing Food Pyramid that so many of us were used to growing up.

Most notably, the icon is a plate, which is a universal symbol in most cultures. The highlight is that half of the plate is covered with fruits and vegetables. This is a huge step toward creating a more health conscious population.

The sad truth is that currently, Americans are more obese than ever. According to the CDC’s 2009 statistics, overall obesity in the United States is 26.7%. Obesity was calculated based on self-reported weight and height and defined as body mass index (weight [kg] / height [m]2) ≥30. Some states actually ranked much higher than the average.

Childhood obesity rates are rising rapidly at a time where multiple factors are reducing the time that children spend engaging in physical activity. This is causing a never-before-seen class of children with early onset of childhood diabeties.

These trends all point to our nation’s health epidemic that is in full crisis mode. If you have any question, see http://forksoverknives.com/.

Proper Nutrition Is Only Half The Battle

The lack of daily exercise is one of the biggest factors contributing to America’s weight problems. People who live in Appalachia and the South are the least likely to be physically active in their leisure time. In many counties in that region, more than 29 percent of adults reported getting no physical activity other than at their regular job.

Although the new MyPlate icon doesn’t address the issue of exercise, it is an essential part of the solution to being more healthy. And later this year, the USDA will be launching an online tool that consumers can use to personalize and manage their dietary and physical activity choices. This is at least a start on reeducating the public on the need for creating a healthy lifestyle.

Essentially the USDA Guidelines reinforce these basic rules:

Balance Calories
• Enjoy your food, but eat less
• Avoid over-sized portions

Foods to Increase
• Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
• Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
• Make at least half your grains whole grains

Foods to Reduce
• Compare sodium (salt) in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose foods with lower numbers
• Drink water instead of sugary drinks

If you’re interested to read up on the details on the USDA’s programs, go to:

And if you, or someone you know is concerned about their weight, you can use this body mass index calculator below.
BMI For Adults Widget

Fruits & Vegetables

I am thrilled to know that part of the new health initiative includes a multi-year campaign with the message “Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables.” Getting people to eat them is, well – another story….

The social media aspect to this campaign is very interesting. They are encouraging people to take a photo of their plates and share on Twitter with the hash-tag #MyPlate. I’ll be tweeting my plate tonight from my account: @chrisripps if you’d like to follow.

The USDA is showing great public concern for our nation’s obesity epidemic, although they are not calling it that. However, what is needed is a “lifestyle overhaul”. People have been brainwashed into thinking that ‘fast food’ is cheap and convenient. What they don’t realize is that it’s cheap for a reason. It’s not so much food as it is filler that’s been pumped up to trick the taste buds into thinking it’s food.

Fast Food Is Pure Evil

Why is fast food so cheap? Because our government has been giving BILLIONS of dollars in subsidies to the corn and soybean farmers.

The fiscal 2011 Farm Bill contained crop subsidies as the largest federal agricultural spending item.  This years Farm Bill proposes to take a total of $2.7 billion (13.4%) out of the food and agriculture budget including steep cuts to: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), The Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) and farm conservation funding programs.

Until our government gets truly serious about our food policies and embraces a total solution, I believe that most of the needed changes will come from grassroots and non-profit organizations working together with local communities.

Please support you local farmers and buy from farmers markets and CSAs whenever you can!

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