The City Park in the Garden District in New Orleans is the largest piece of green you’ll find in the Big Easy. Not just a park, it’s also host to The New Orleans Museum of Art, a football stadium, and Grow Dat Youth Farm, our stop for the afternoon. There is a sense of serenity and tranquility as you approach the site, the majority of the traffic passing being by foot and bike. Jibari, the garden coordinator, hopped off his lawn mower to welcome us into the modular recycled structure on the property, made of shipping containers, recycled wood from old Tulane buildings, and concrete.
A change from our accustomed Northern climate, we were reminded the summer in New Orleans is the off-season. For Grow Dat, they take June thru September to plan for the next season, not producing any food. Grow Dat’s seven acres of land used to be a golf course, but now has plans to be used much more productively. Although the 1.5-acre production field was under cover crop, the 3-year-old tropical fruit trees were bearing, and the land’s swampy alcoves allowed for a beautiful getaway from the summer heat. The area in production will continue to grow to eventually fill all of their available land as the organization matures, currently only in it’s third year.
The winters are crankin’, as Grow Dat focuses their efforts on growing food for restaurants and farmers markets, but most importantly employing 40 high school kids for 28 hours/week with a stipend. This time is split evenly between maintaining the farm and classroom time with a focus on nutrition, cooking, and outdoor education classes. Grow Dat’s close relationship with New Orleans’ Tulane University is a huge benefit as the school came out and built all their infrastructure. Complete with offices, a composting toilet, wash area, refrigerated storage, and small kitchen, they really have all they need in this space to continue to educate the youth.
The thought of getting paid to work in a garden is much easier way to get kids involved in growing their own food, as well as giving them the chance to manage their own money. Because of these paid positions, Grow Dat doesn’t have a problem keeping spaces full every year. Using money as an incentive also attracts kids that wouldn’t necessarily get involved in gardening otherwise. It’s a great way to get them closer to their food, and feed their families better while doing so. Out of the produce grown, about 60% goes into direct-market sales and about 40% gets donated to the students, employees, and other organizations such as the local food bank.
Grow Dat’s commitment to educating inner-city youth about where their food is coming from is inspiring; as this city slowly recovers from the disasters of the past 10 years, we see the green movement slowly creeping in to stifle the conservative values of the south. Through the major destruction this city has undergone, the values that have been uprooted have made way for new progressive thought. This stop has brought us friends starting up farms in the deepest parts of the most needy neighborhoods, and young people being presented opportunities that would not possible in other areas that we have visited. We look forward to seeing these young projects such as Grow Dat flourish into these dusty nooks and crannies and truly become engrained in the rich culture of this city.