Covenant House

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Covenant House Gardens Dec. 8, 2009

Homeless young people and runaways learn lessons of survival on their own. But to transition to mainstream society, to get on the path to healthy adult lives, they need to develop different skills and have different experiences than what they knew on the streets.

"For them to be welcomed, and to be a part of something, to have some ownership and to feel proud of something they built, but also to feel connected to the people around them instead of waiting for the next shoe to drop or for the next person to come along and hurt them or take whatever they need to."

That's Stacey Horn Koch, executive director of Covenant House New Orleans. This nonprofit provides shelter to needy young people. And, through its social enterprise programs, it also gives them opportunities to experience success and accomplishment, to see firsthand what healthy, independent living is all about, and to cultivate a feeling of responsibility and inclusion within society.

In a new initiative to meet these goals, Covenant House is introducing its kids to the transformative possibilities of urban farming. They're working with the New Orleans Food & Farm Network, which is helping to build a community of urban farms and urban farmers around the area. Through a new partnership, the Food & Farm Network will help kids served by Covenant House turn 10 empty lots in the Treme neighborhood into new fruit and vegetable farms. They'll receive training and education, they'll work together to grow food and they'll watch as once vacant and neglected plots of city land become productive property by their own hands. The fresh, healthy produce of the new farms will be served at group meals at Covenant House and also sold to local restaurants to help fund the Covenant House mission.

There's promise for better personal dietary health, environmental redemption and economic sustainability. And these are the layered benefits the Food & Farm Network says are at the heart of urban farming. Here's Johanna Gilligan, the network's educational programs director:

"Food is an intersection of all these different points of society, everyone eats so it's a universal component of all of our lives, so we see that as a great way to engage people. Something that's really wonderful about this project is the intersection of youth with food and community."

"It both benefits them as consumers and also them as producers by helping them create more fresh food access in their neighborhoods and across New Orleans."

While this project begins with 10 lots in one area of the Treme, both Covenant House and the Food & Farm Network believe their partnership can be a template to expand on other sites, and be used by other groups. After all, there's no lack of vacant lots in New Orleans these days, and the interest in local, sustainable food is growing.

New buildings may someday rise on today's reclaimed garden plots, but the lessons from time spent on these farms can last a lifetime, as Covenant House kids are about to discover. Here's Stacey Horn Koch again:

"They will know how to plant some corn in their backyard and they'll know how to have fresh greens and they'll know how to have little herb boxes and it'll be something they can teach their children."

Learn more about Covenant House and the New Orleans Food & Farm Network at For WWNO, I'm Ian McNulty.