Feeding the Community, Growing New Leaders
Twenty-three percent of New Orleans residents are food insecure, meaning they are not certain that they can put enough quality food on their tables to meet their basic needs. Related to this, a recent study indicated that 16.4% of the city is considered a food desert, which the CDC defines as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other quality, nutritious food.”
Few entities are working harder or more effectively to overcome these serious food issues than the Grow Dat Youth Farm – and yet, in the words of Executive Director Devon Turner, “We are a youth leadership organization.”
The Grow Dat farm is located on a two-acre tract in New Orleans City Park, where it grows and harvests an average 32,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables every year. Seventy percent of the produce is sold through farmer’s markets and the Community Shared Agriculture program, while the other thirty percent is distributed via Grow Dat’s Shared Harvest program to low-income residents who lack access to fresh foods.
Who actually plants, tends and harvests the crops? Since Grow Dat was founded in 2011, more than 320 young people, age 15 to 21, have graduated from the program, and they are the farmers. However, they learn considerably more than proper soil management and how to determine when vegetables are ripe.
“We are trying to support young people to be change agents in their home communities,” said Turner. “We want them to translate what they learn about leadership back into their communities.”
To this end, Grow Dat uses the concept of collective farming to teach everything from workplace skills to team leadership. Graduates of the initial program can continue in the Advanced Leadership Program, where they both increase their knowledge of sustainable agriculture and learn how to train others. In turn, they become Assistant Crew Leaders for the next cohort of youth farmers.
More than ten percent of participants continue on this leadership track, and three current Grow Dat staff members are past program graduates. “Any time a young person graduates from the program and becomes a staff member, I love it!” Turner exclaimed.
As an example of how Grow Dat offers far more than planting and reaping in its programs, Turner related that the organization recently had the opportunity to apply for a significant grant. He said, “We opened up the idea of applying for the grant to the youth in the program, and they went through about eight weeks of brainstorming, collaboration, and research on community needs. Then they presented their ideas, which became the basis for our proposal.”
The grant application was successful, bringing much-needed funding for the organization. Like virtually every other nonprofit in the New Orleans area, the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously impaired fundraising for Grow Dat. The group has had to cancel its annual fundraising dinner twice, and its outlets for selling its produce are operating at reduced hours if at all.
COVID also disrupted the programming. “There were some things we could pivot to online learning,” said Turner, “but at our core, we are a hands in the soil organization.” However, Grow Dat was able to maintain its normal number of participants through the pandemic, and the fact of being outdoors, doing work that can accommodate social distancing, enabled the organization to resume farming earlier this year.
Grow Dat’s work is very close to Turner’s heart. A self-proclaimed “country girl” raised in Plaquemines Parish, her journey led her to college in St. Louis and graduate school at New York University, where her studies of American, and specifically Southern, history were her “introduction to historical oppression and historical movements.” After completing her studies, she remained in New York, working as a professor and also in programs for incarcerated youth returning from the infamous Riker’s Island prison.
“I saw that systems need to be more responsive, more respectful, more protective of young people,” she noted, and when she had children of her own, it was time to return home. She worked first with Liberty’s Kitchen, part of the ReFresh Project facility on North Broad Street, which is also home to the Sprout NOLA community farm.
“This was my introduction to food work in New Orleans,” Turner recalled, “and it got me very interested in changing food systems.”
Turner and Grow Dat are indeed helping solve systemic food and nutrition issues in New Orleans, but the work goes so much deeper: they are not only growing crops, they are growing the future leaders of the city.
Anyone interested in volunteering with Grow Dat can contact Leo Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504-616-1777. Anyone interested in field trips to the farm (for families or groups) can contact Jonshell Johnson at email@example.com.