Reap what you sow

1st June 2018

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A sustainable food project’s mission to nourish a diverse group of young leaders is harvesting it a wide-reaching reputation. Huw Morris speaks to project founding member Jeanne Firth

Think of New Orleans and three things spring to mind: jazz, food and Hurricane Katrina. On the latter two, Jeanne Firth talks with considerable authority.

A founding member of Grow Dat Youth Farm, a sustainable food project in the heart of New Orleans that employs around 60 teenagers each year, she has lost count of the young people who have transformed their lives simply through growing food. But a couple of names crop up.

Yasmin Davis is a Grow Dat graduate, who went on to study political science and Latin American studies and won a scholarship with the Posse Foundation – a programme that trains public high school students with outstanding academic and leadership potential. She held almost every position possible at Grow Dat – from crew member, assistance area leader and intern – before joining the staff as a crew leader.

Another is Tim Dubuclet, who was living on fast food and sugary drinks and weighed more than 21 stone when he joined the project. He worked the soil, learnt about vegetables and how to cook them, lost more than 5 stone and gained a lifelong habit of gardening and preparing food.

Founded in 2011, Grow Dat is based on a seven-acre site of a former golf course in the city’s park, which in 2005 was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina – one of the most cataclysmic storms in US history. That catastrophe still reverberates.

“When I first moved to New Orleans, I noticed people spoke in the shorthand of ‘before’ or ‘after’ to signify before or after Katrina,” says Firth. “The hurricane and levee [dyke] failure had so radically affected people’s lives. It’s a huge context.”

The concept for the farm grew out of a partnership between the Tulane City Center, the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN) and New Orleans City Park. A big challenge was immediately apparent. Most of Grow Dat’s students lived unhealthy lifestyles – a snap survey showed that just 12% had eaten vegetables in the previous 24 hours. Many lived more than three miles from a supermarket.

The long-term problem of poor access to fresh food was exacerbated by Katrina. Three years after the hurricane, there were almost 18,000 residents per supermarket – well above the national average of 8,000.

Since then, the Grow Dat farm has gained momentum and a reputation. Each year, the farm provides more than 20,000lb – over 9,000kg – of sustainably grown food for New Orleans. Around 70% of its produce is sold through farmers’ markets run by its students, through a community-supported agriculture box scheme, or wholesale to restaurants across the city. The other 30%, called Shared Harvest, is donated to the people and community organisations who need it most.

Need is great, says Firth. Louisiana has the third highest rate of food insecurity in the US.

In New Orleans, the racial disparities in access to food that existed before Hurricane Katrina considerably worsened and became more deeply entrenched after the storm and levee failure. African American residents are not only more likely to be food insecure but are also 33% more likely to die of heart disease and three times as likely to die of diabetes than white residents.

Overall, life expectancy can vary as much as 25 years by postcode in this segregated city. “That’s 25 years’ difference just neighbourhood by neighbourhood,” she says.

One of Grow Dat’s founding principles is that the toughest social problems will not be solved by individuals or by one group of people alone. “This is one of the lasting lessons of Hurricane Katrina, a dozen years later,” she says. The project hires young people from partner schools across New Orleans for its five-month leadership programme. Starting at age 15, they come from across the spectrum – elite private Catholic schools, alternative schools and Louisiana’s Center for Juvenile Offenders. “We intentionally hire young people from a dozen different high schools across the city,” she says. “They are young people who work together but might never normally meet.”

The young people work as interns, assistant crew leaders and crew leaders, who help select and train the next group while running the farm. The project’s graduates are now hired by a network of partners, comprising sustainable food co-operatives, retailers and urban landscapers.

Much of the work at Grow Dat is carried out by hand. Students spend half their time learning about sustainable agriculture and getting their hands dirty planting, weeding, cultivating, compost building and harvesting.

“We use cover cropping, composting, companion planting, farmscaping and crop rotation to stimulate microbiological activity and soil health,” says Firth. “It’s all about chemical-free farming methods to build a resilient, sustainable agricultural system. We do not use chemical-based pesticides or fertilisers. We produce food by supporting natural ecological systems.”

This approach has implications for human growth as well as crop growth. “That means stewarding natural and human resources for the future.

Farming is challenging, and serves as a conduit to stimulate the development of youth leadership skills,” she says.

The farm features an Eco Campus, comprising seven retrofitted shipping containers that house the project’s offices, a teaching kitchen, youth locker rooms, composting toilets, cold storage, a post-harvest handling area and a tool storage area. The campus was built and donated by students and staff at the Tulane City Center, part of Tulane University’s School of Architecture, and has won several regional awards for its design and sustainability. This is where students spend the other half of their time: in workshops complemented by skill-building activities on site, at the project’s partner organisations, or on field trips.

“They learn why we do what we are doing – why we are growing food sustainably, why we are weeding instead of spraying herbicide, why we plant red clover near beds of vegetables to attract bees and wasps for pollination,” says Firth.

“If you have grown something, there is more personal investment and care,” she adds. “It’s an honour to see something grow and take on a life.” Grow Dat, she says, is “meaningful, important work of growing food for our city with one another”.

Firth is of Swedish ancestry, with many of her close relatives having farmed the Kansas prairies for generations. “When my grandfather visited Grow Dat, he said it seems like an old-fashioned, more traditional farm.” She likes to quote the farmer poet Wendell Berry: “When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.”

One attraction for visitors is the farm’s location next to a birding corridor. Hundreds of species of birds perch in the bald cypress trees near its Eco Campus. Visitors can also see an alligator or two gliding along the bayou that flanks the farm’s rows of vegetables.

“Coastal Louisiana is at the frontline of climate instability, and many think we are experiencing the fastest land loss on the planet – at the rate of an American football field every hour,” says Firth. Indeed, the farm’s bayou links to Lake Pontchartrain, which intersects with the Mississippi River, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This is another reason for not using “synthetic chemical fertilisers that will drain and circulate in these vital water systems”.

Besides funding from grants, donors and market sales, the project raises money through holding seasonal farm dinners, at which it invites local celebrity chefs to cook up locally focused, family-style meals. Tickets sell out fast. The events also reinforce the farm’s reputation across New Orleans and beyond.

Firth, who is researching a doctorate at the London School of Economics, works as a consultant for Grow Dat, spreading its message. She admits that when she is giving presentations or speaking at conferences, there is “a tension of me being an adult but knowing that the true voice of our work comes from young people”.

The project’s message is much in demand, she says. “There is no way we can meet the demand for our produce or for information from organisations about what we do. There are limitless possibilities and support for the work.”

However, her enthusiasm does not extend to the Trump administration. “I have no confidence that sustainability is being emphasised,” she says. “The executive leadership of the US seeks to further divide people. But we believe that coming together – across race, class, gender, sexuality, young people who are great at school, young people who are struggling in school – is essential to creating lasting social change.”

Food equality focus

Jeanne Firth is researching a PhD at the London School of Economics on food security and equality, and works as a consultant for Grow Dat. Previously, she served as co-chair of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, and lectured as an adjunct professor with the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University. Before Grow Dat, she worked on food and social justice projects in San Francisco.

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist

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