Text by Kate Sennert
Photography by Rory Gunderson
On a recent trip to New Orleans, I was leaf- ing through the cover story of The Gambit, a weekly newspaper, profiling young people piloting local agricultural projects. Greater New Orleans is, evidently, rife with organic farming, community gardening, and edible education initiatives. Rifling through another couple pages I noticed that the paper’s events section exhibited an impressive list of farmers markets dotted across the city. Throughout the month (June), drummed the editor, New Orleanians would partake in the Eat Local Challenge: a 30-day pledge to purchase, cook, and consume only local food.
What struck me was not just that New Orleans, one of America’s great cities, with a rich culinary tradition stemming from its Cajun, French, Creole, Spanish, African American, Spanish, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Latino, and Vietnamese roots had embraced the urban agriculture movement. And New Orleans has never required a challenge to eat local. Anyone familiar with the term ‘locavore’ has witnessed community gardens blanket- ing empty lots across the country like wildfire in recent years; certainly post-Katrina New Orleans is in no short supply of neglected urban space. That the city is a good candidate for adopting this trend is undeniable.
What was striking was less about eco- gastronomy or the educational virtues of gardening and more about the transforma- tive power of what Alice Waters has called the “pleasures of work.” The satisfying labor of growing food, of seemingly creating something out of nothing, and reclaiming order against the backdrop of uncontrol- lable circumstances, is a prevalent thread in the stories of New Orleans’ grown-locally projects.
I decided to a closer look at two commu- nity garden ventures in New Orleans, one of which popped up after Hurricane Katrina and the recent BP oil spill, and another with roots going back to the 1970s, that nevertheless has yet to break ground. Both tackle adversity— and not just the ecological kind. The socio- economic implications of these projects are proving a viable catalyst for political change, from the ground up.
Grow Dat is a 19-week youth farming program launched in 2011 that teaches urban teens how to grow, market, and sell fresh produce. Much like Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, which has its own branch in New Orleans, Grow Dat is focused is edible educa- tion—i.e. fostering knowledge of sustainable food production and nutrition through the harvesting and cooking of fruits and vegeta- bles. Unlike the Edible Schoolyard, however, whose schema targets elementary school students, Grow Dat enlists local teens and gives them a stipend for their work. Positioned as an alternative after-school job, which for some New Orleans kids means working at a fast food joint, Grow Dat gives its young farmers a taste of entrepreneurship: they take turns working in the garden and retailing the products of their labor. Its participants are invested in all aspects of the business cycle, exiting the program with desirable employ- ment and leadership skills and a sense of empowerment.
The notion that growing one’s own food has socio-economic and psychological benefits that should be cultivated in the classroom has been hotly contested (see Caitlin Flanagan’s 2010 article, “Cultivating Failure,” published in The Atlantic.) But if you look back to pre- Katrina New Orleans, to the mass migration of Vietnamese to the city’s ‘far east’ in the mid-1970s, local agriculture proves a hefty tool for survival. Not only has backyard and community gardening contributed to upward mobility for three generations, but its very survival gave this previously quiet ethnic community a political voice—one that very literally changed the shape of New Orleans.
I drove out to see the site of Viet Village— an urban farm project—in the Vietnamese enclave known as Village de L’Est, or Versailles by locals. The first immigrants who arrived here left Vietnam during the war with the help of Catholic organizations and assistance from the US government. The city’s Gulf Coast climate and French influence made for an accommodating location for the mostly agrarian refugees, who brought seeds with them to America and immediately started growing. The elderly population continues to keep the practice alive, cultivating and harvesting vegetables unique to South East
Asia in their backyards and along the Maxent lagoon. What’s leftover is sold at the commu- nity’s farmers market, which has been in exis- tence for 35 years. The vibrancy of the Village de L’Est gardening tradition has been attributed to many things: a desire for self-sufficiency, the connection to a distant homeland, and the financial contribution that otherwise unemployable elders make to their families in supplying them with food. The mental health benefits of ‘hortitherapy,’ among older people especially, have proven crucial to their survival in this foreign culture. But keeping this tradi- tion alive has proven an extraordinary task.
Heading east on the Chef Menteur Highway, on my way to Village de L’Est, I presumed Viet Village would be something
to look at, to photograph. What I discovered instead was a sign attached to a chain-link fence bordering an empty lot. The sign featured a rendering of what Viet Village was to become: a 28-acre organic farming complex featuring individual garden plots, a food market, a compost site, a livestock area, and a playground. I learned that the idea for Viet Village was a response to a post-Katrina re-zoning plan, put forth by Mayor Ray Nagin’s office, to turn this area of East New Orleans into a ‘green space’ or demolish it and build an airport. Without its consultation Village de L’Est was suddenly off the map.
The community’s response was outrage; already the hurricane had turned the neigh- borhood’s water supply noxious and govern- ment efforts to restore public services had been slow. With the help of Tulane University, the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Community Development Corporation drafted a design for Viet Village, structured around local agri- cultural and the church. Raising their voices for the first time, the residents of Village de L’Est protested, bringing the city’s plan to a halt, and emerged with a community garden project that would endure for generations. But soon after, in a cruel twist of fate, the city began dumping the detritus (left from Hurricane Katrina (toxic and otherwise) approximately one mile from Village de L’Est, further threatening their ecological surroundings. Again the community stood up to local government, employing the power of numbers, and after much tribulation managed to close the dump for good.
All of this—and then BP oil spill in 2010—have delayed a ground breaking cere- mony at Viet Village. Many in the neighbor- hood say that, despite all the press attention and political headway, the prospects of reviv- ing Village de L’Est’s gardening culture to its former status are slim. But one might also see these challenges as fodder for resurgence. The combined eco-disasters of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill created an irreparable dent on New Orleans’ natural resources, fostering hyper-awareness of the fragility and limita- tions of its environment. City residents from all socio-economic backgrounds are looking to community gardening as a means of restor- ing a semblance of order and self-sufficiency in the face of these events. It seems grossly simplistic to frame this movement as a gastro- nomic trend or an educational experiment hardly worth the work.
As New Orleanians rebuild their lives and city, they’re using the opportunity to view society, in some sense, from scratch. And from an outsider’s perspective, they appear resistant to the idea of filling it with more fast food restaurants or concrete-covered school-grounds. This city likes it local. They’ll fight to keep it that way because they know, better than anyone, that keeping alive the great city of New Orleans is fundamentally a labor of love.