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Hundreds of people gathered in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans on a Saturday afternoon, where they worked together to build a massive backyard garden.
Twenty new fruit trees were among the crops planted that day, designed to provide healthy and accessible produce to the community. Participants came from the neighborhood and from all over, including the local Rotary Club chapter and the police department.
Then on Sunday, Hurricane Katrina hit.
“They planted all this stuff, and everybody left the city,” says PreventObesity.net Leader Sanjay Kharod, executive director of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN), which oversaw the build. “There was about 10 feet of water, so everything that those people did just washed away.”
The garden was washed away — but NOFFN’s work became more important than ever.
Today, NOFFN works with local and regional partners and stakeholders on efforts to ensure healthy and affordable food is available to Big Easy residents through a variety of different strategies. NOFFN’s goal is create a growing movement of New Orleans residents who care about transforming the city’s overall food system for the better.
“It’s really to regularly engage with backyard garden people, our community garden people, our farms,” Kharod says. “It’s really about to feel like you’re part of something bigger.”
For example, NOFFN offers technical and labor assistance to folks interested in starting backyard gardens or urban farms. Meanwhile, the organization works with farmers’ markets and local businesses to help facilitate the sale of produce sourced from local and regional growers.
NOFFN also serves to provide educational resources for NOLA residents interested in food issues, including workshops, a public calendar showing when and where farmers’ markets take place and a food and farm exchange, where growers can exchange their crop yield for supplies and other tools.
“My approach [is] we collaborate with everybody,” says Kharod, who joined NOFFN in 2010. “We need to basically empower neighborhoods and individual entrepreneurial projects to develop and run themselves.”
NOFFN first launched in 2002 as an all-volunteer effort to create a local and regional network of people, organizations and other stakeholders working to improve healthy food access in underserved communities. Finding that New Orleans had available space in many communities, the founders began their efforts by working with local residents to plant backyard gardens.
It was a grassroots effort, designed to provide residents with a tool that they could help lead and manage on their own. It was also pretty successful, as residents across the city grew fruit and vegetables in their backyard gardens and shared their yield with neighbors.
After Katrina devastated much of the city, NOFFN began to rethink its mission. It faced a slew of new challenges, but also had an opportunity to reshape the entire food system in New Orleans.
And on the bright side, the storm brought in a surge of charitable donations that provided NOFFN with the ability to test new strategies. “We would try out projects to see what would stick. Any kind of recovery was important,” Kharod says.
In the aftermath of the storm, the organization focused on food security issues, as it was unclear where people could actually find food during the first few months of the rebuild.
NOFFN created a map of every city neighborhood to determine where food was available to residents, sharing the map with residents so they would know where to find fresh and affordable food. While drafting the map, NOFFN discovered that many neighborhoods were food deserts — and something needed to be done to increase healthy food access.
To address the issue, NOFFN staff expanded its previous efforts to support backyard gardens and urban farming in New Orleans. NOFFN found that while many of the farmers they worked with knew how to grow crops, they didn’t know what to do with their crop yield. In response, NOFFN helped develop regional food hubs, where farmers from both the city and local rural areas can sell their goods.
Meanwhile, NOFFN is working to turn many of the city’s empty lots into local gardens, providing a place for the community to grow healthy produce while also combating blight. “It’s better than being a place where people can dump garbage,” Kharod says.
In March, NOFFN began providing seeds and six-pack seedlings — which yields 48 plants — to residents for $10 a year. Residents also get plant starts, which give them a better chance at growing success.
In August, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation announced it will provide nearly $500,000 to build a 1.5 acre community farm in the city’s central business district. NOFFN will provide support to the new farm, which will provide fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income residents via a new weekly farmers’ market. The new farm also serve as a teaching tool for urban farmers and city residents, as it will feature a classroom and teaching kitchen where experts will provide training for new growers.
And in the years ahead, NOFFN aims to continue to grow the food movement throughout the Big Easy.
“We’re growing growers. It’s really about… getting societal change,” Kharod says. “We’re trying to encourage knowledge and interest that’s already there.”