Apply now to join our next cohort of Community Science Fellows and Community Leads!

Understanding Impact of Municipal Water Sources on Urban Farming

New Orleans, Louisiana

Featured image for the project, Understanding Impact of Municipal Water Sources on Urban Farming


Project Title: Improving Health in Environmental Justice Communities with Data, Good Food, and Water 

Location: New Orleans, LA 

The Team: 

  • Pepper Bowen  DirectorCulinaria Center, National Food and Beverage Foundation 
  • Wendy Heiger-Bernays – Clinical Professor, Department of Environmental Health. Boston University School of Public Health 
  • Erin Polka, Graduate Student, Boston University School of Public Health 


The Initial Challenge:  

This project was initiated in response to local questions about exposure to lead in locally grown produce from potential water and soil contamination. Questions asked included: What are the connections between food and water supplies? What is in the soil and water used in local food production? How does what’s in the soil and water reach consumers of produce? What reaches a consumer? 


The Methods 

The project team explored these questions through literature and data reviews, and consulting with a range of local experts for insights and advice. They coordinated via weekly conference calls (rescheduled as necessary to accommodate busy schedules), and relied on project management tools including shared online workspaces and Trello for organization and information management.  


The Results 

The project resulted in the creation of several documents and summaries including:  

  • A consolidation of key information from a literature review, as well as newly written summaries of current news and research, organizations and persons involved in research, and potential gaps in the data.  
  • A flow diagram showcasing the relationship between lead contamination and food security 
  • A summary of national primary drinking water regulations 
  • A poster on Improving Health in Environmental Justice Communities with Data, Good Food and Water (presented at the AGU Fall Meeting in December 2018). 

Access to this compiled information facilitates enhanced awareness of the exchanges between food, water, and soil, and ready access to relevant data, information and other research projects. These materials will inform follow-up work and community engagement pursued by the Culinaria Center in partnership with and in support of New Orleans’ food, farming and gardening communities 



Things that contributed to success: 

  • Different members of the team had busy schedules during different periods of the project. There was a willingness among all involved to be flexible in scheduling meetings, and giving one another space to step back and manage their other responsibilities. When these needs arose, the team was quick to communicate about needs and limitations.  

  Advice for people pursuing similar community science projects: 

  • At the start of every project, it is important to develop a project plan featuring clear goals, milestones, and the roles and responsibilities of each individual involved. Referring to the plan frequently and updating when needed is helpful for sustaining engagement and confidence in team activities. Significant updates to a project plan are ideally made infrequently or due to significant cause, and should always involve a group discussion. 
  • Be careful about making assumptions regarding systems and norms, especially when working with individuals operating in a different professional environment. Be up front about costs, expectations and limitations and communicate scale and implications when inviting an individual into a new environment.  


New Orleans, Louisiana has faced significant challenges with flooding and lead contamination, which have potential impacts on local food systems. Soil contamination has long been a concern due to flooding, but now there are also questions regarding elevated lead levels in the water used to support local agriculture. The New Orleans Inspector General’s Office released a report in July 2017 warning of elevated lead levels exacerbated by the extensive road work taking place throughout the city, which can dislodge lead particles and cause public health concerns.

The National Food and Beverage Foundation’s Culinaria Center for Food Law, Policy, and Culture is concerned with the health of people working with and consuming food in New Orleans. As part of their work with urban gardeners and farmers to increase local food production, they need to understand the contaminants in the water supply that affect the food cycle. The importance of increasing local food production is critical to both the day-to-day health and wellbeing of residents, but also a concern in emergencies, in which having a local food supply can extend storage potential.

In order to develop a sustainable urban food system, the Culinaria Center needs to ensure there is clean water for safe local food production.


The Project

The Culinaria Center will partner with a local scientist to better understand whether the water supply is safe for local food production and processing, and how to deal with potential lead contamination. This project will increase community understanding of the connection between food and water supplies, and will help Culinaria advocate for potential policy changes and increased public education. This will be achieved by performing a research inventory, soil and water sampling, identifying necessary data for modeling contaminants in soil and water used for urban agriculture, and communicating information gathered back to food producers and local consumers.

Project Team

Community Leader

Pepper Bowen is the Director of the Culinaria Center at the National Food and Beverage Foundation. She is a former project manager, current enviro, and consummate lover of food. Pepper holds degrees from Tulane U (BS), Regis U (MSCIT), and Loyola New Orleans (JD); and seats on the New Orleans Food Policy Action and the Regional Sustainability Committees. She has authored academic research articles, policy papers, nasty letters to the editor, and edutaining blog posts, all in her noble quest to bring food and an understanding of where it comes from to the consciousness of people who eat.


Scientific Partner

Wendy Heiger-Bernays is a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health where she applies her training in molecular toxicology to practical questions about the impact of industrial chemicals, consumer products and pharmaceuticals in waste streams on people’s health. She works collaboratively to assess toxicity of chemicals that are able to modify the metabolic pathways in juvenile and prenatal fish and rodent models, to characterize and screen chemicals with endocrine activity in water, characterize health risks posed by vapors in homes that originate beneath the ground, and the development of practical interventions to commonly measured chemical hazards in agricultural soils. Her research and teaching include a focus on effective ways to translate findings from the laboratory to multiple audiences. Wendy’s overall objective is to engage communities in their understanding and mitigation of environmental health risks.