Episode 232: Burnell and Keasha Cotlon
“This is a place to get anything – from food, to diapers, to personal needs, to just a friendly smile!” Keasha Cotlon (19:00-19:12)
Even though America is one of the most prosperous nations in the world, and one that makes some of the largest food aid contributions in the world, food deserts are prevalent from coast to coast. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Lower 9th Ward turned into a food desert.
That’s exactly why Burnell and Keasha Cotlon opened The Lower 9th Ward Market in 2014, the first food store to open in the area after Hurricane Katrina. Before The Lower 9th Ward Market, residents of the area would have to take three separate buses one way just to reach the nearest grocery store and other areas of business for basic needs. The Cotlon’s took out their entire life savings, first to open a barber shop in order to start generating revenue so they could afford to open up the grocery store next. For years, residents would come to The Lower 9th Ward Market and grab their groceries out of a small window, until the Cotlon’s had saved up enough money to open literal doors. The line would often be around the block from people waiting to get their groceries because it was the only option without taking three buses or traveling over five miles! The Cotlon’s are dedicated to helping serve their community. For example, Burnell asked a regular customer of his why he would always come to the store and only purchase two items – laundry detergent and a Coca-Cola. The gentleman said it was all he could carry on his bike, which also had a big bag of his and his daughter’s dirty clothes in it. He’d ride for miles just to get to a laundromat, unable to carry much else on his bike in one trip. After hearing this, Burnell said, “I don’t know how or when, but I’m going to get you a laundry room in this building.”
Somehow, the following week, Burnell received a call from the Ellen DeGeneres show and Ellen herself donated washing machines and dryers, making it the first and only laundry room in The Lower 9th Ward Market’s building!
Before Hurricane Katrina hit 17 years ago, the Lower 9th Ward was a thriving community with all the businesses, connections and infrastructure you’d expect from any other city. Now, for example, the Cotlon’s only have three neighbors. Many people want to come back to their home where their rich heritage and culture is rooted, but they’re hurt and the community lacks the services for them to live a healthy, vibrant life.
The USDA defines a food desert as an urban area without access to affordable food within a five mile radius. It’s estimated that 12.8% of the United States population live in food deserts and over half of them are low-income families.
The Cotlon’s have been kind enough to use the honor system for some of their customers, like with a grandmother who has four grandchildren who was struggling to pay for groceries during COVID-19. Since many of the area’s residents have service industry or hospitality industry jobs, the pandemic hit them hard. Some customers respect the honor system and, for example, used their stimulus check to pay what they owed, and some haven’t, but at the end of the day it’s the Cotlon’s number one priority to serve their community, not make a huge profit.
Especially with stores like The Lower 9th Ward Market, Lori, Burnell and Keasha all agree that having grocery stores that stayed open during COVID-19 helped all of us realize that these establishments are more than just food retailers, they’re community institutions. Going to the market or the store is a time when you’re getting things you need to take care of your loved ones, trying new, healthy items, seeing your neighbors, and so much more. Food is an equalizer that brings us all together to celebrate life and stay healthy, which is why it’s more important than ever that food deserts are eradicated in our country. Burnell and Keasha have built The Lower 9th Ward Market one door, shelf and step at a time. Going from having no community store at all, to serving groceries out of a window, to “turning the lights on” by learning how to wire electricity off of YouTube, it’s been a process to help serve their community and take care of as many needs as possible. Keasha loves serving kids in the morning on their way to school, and the construction workers that come in for their lunch hour. Burnell loves making changes, like bringing in washers and dryers, to further serve the needs of his fellow community members.
It’s clear that the Cotlon’s thrive off of serving their community and working hard to bring the Lower 9th Ward back to its thriving roots. They’re always looking for more help, too! You can call Burnell anytime at 504-319-5886 with your ideas or to offer your assistance on this mission, and they’d love to see you at the market if you live by or travel near the Lower 9th Ward!
How to get involved
- Join The Produce Moms Group on Facebook and continue the discussion every week!
- Reach out to us – we’d love to hear more about where you are in life and business! Find out more here.
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Previous episodes you may enjoy
- Episode 231: Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak
- Episode 229: Joanna Jaramillo
- Episode 228: Mary Jacobsen
- Episode 227: John Hollay
- Episode 226: Brett Valicoff