A new farm in City Park is making more fresh vegetables available for communities, while some important skills and values are taking root for the teens who cultivate it.
In a corner of New Orleans City Park, tucked between the interstate and a bayou, new vegetable rows are sprouting up thanks to a diverse group of local high school students who work at the nonprofit Grow Dat Youth Farm. One of them is 17-year-old Ace Shields.
“I take away from a day at work, like giving back to my city as a whole and giving back to people who don’t have the access to certain foods,” he says. “I just feel better about providing local grown stuff for my city.”
It turns out, there’s a lot more taking root here than crops. Grow Dat Youth Farm aims to help young people develop as leaders through the hands-on work of cultivating a farm together while also answering a community need for better access to fresh vegetables.
“This is a place where they can reach their potential and where people expect a lot of them and are willing to support them to reach their goals,” says Grow Dat co-director Johanna Gilligan.
Each season, her group recruits teenagers from different schools to work the City Park farm site as paid interns. They learn the basics of farming, they learn about healthy diets and they find out great deal about themselves.
“Farming is a really great tool for leadership development, because chances are no matter what neighborhood you grew up in, no matter what socio-economic background you come from, if you are a teenager in a school today you have not farmed before,” says Gilligan. “So farming becomes this equalizer of an activity where we’re bringing together kids of different backgrounds, young adults of different backgrounds. But they’re bonding through the meaningful work of growing food for their community, which is sometimes difficult, and we ask them to push through in those difficult moments. Essentially it’s this excellent community development tool.”
It’s also a tool that creates a tangible, nutritious harvest. The farm’s goal is to produce 10,000 pounds of food this year. Some of it is sold to the public at the Sankofa Farmers Market in the Bywater, and the farm donates 40 percent of its haul to groups like the Second Harvest Food Bank to get more healthy food into the community. But as 17-year-old Grow Dat student Muffin Stevenson has found, nutritional value isn’t the only way to measure this nonprofit’s impact.
“Something I’ve learned is to step back,” Stevenson says. “It was something that was kind of hard for me to get through with, but as a team everyone has a voice and everyone’s opinion matters, so I learned to like step back when it’s time to step back and step forward when it’s time to step forward. Because we all like have a voice that should be heard.”
That’s something to which Grow Dat Youth farmer Ace Shields can relate.
“It’s like everything from the farm, it really has helped me in school as far as group working and working with people I never met,” says Shields. “It makes me more comfortable working with them. I believe it’s been successful for me.”
Learn more about Grow Dat Youth Farm at www.growdatyouthfarm.org