“Two and a half years ago, a team of people came together to create a program and space in which young people from a diverse set of backgrounds could come together and develop leadership skills through the meaningful work of growing food sustainably,” explained Leo Gorman, Co-Director and Farm Manager of Grow Dat Youth Farm. “The idea that through the meaningful work of sustainable agriculture and gardening, young people are coming together, addressing challenges of how to communicate well with each other, how to resolve conflict, how to speak publicly, how to analyze problems, how to provide the community with more access to affordable and healthy food, and how to market those foods. The idea was to accomplish all things through farm work.”
With support from Tulane University and the Tulane City Center, Grow Dat Youth Farm developed an actual farm in New Orleans City Park. “Right now, we have a four acre farm and of that, we are currently growing about an acre and a half of fruits and vegetables. The other parts are used as an outdoor classroom, an office and storage space, and an ethno botanical environmental and agricultural space, where our youth and other kinds of groups can come in to learn about the importance of native species, building wetlands, and interacting and creating a diverse eco-system in City Park.”
Participants in the Grow Dat program come from a variety of high schools and community organizations in the New Orleans area. And this year saw 19 graduates from the program, aged 15-19 from Warren Easton Charter High School, De La Salle High School, New Orleans Charter Math and Science High School, Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, and The NET Charter High School.
Leo said, “The idea at Grow Dat is to bring together young people that probably wouldn’t otherwise come together. We strive to create diversity along socio-economic, race, gender, and geography lines. A lot of times, young people in New Orleans are segregated, especially by the public/private school divide, so one of the purposes here is to bring students from private schools together with students from public schools to create an environment where they’re learning from each other and growing leadership skills.”
He continued, “When students first apply for the program, we do short one-on-one interviews, but we also have them work with second year Grow Dat youths, who have come back as youth staff positions. They participate in games and team building activities to get a sense of how they will fit into the Grow Dat culture. We look for young people who are already demonstrating a lot of leadership skills and may be involved in extra-curricular activities or have been highly recommended by their school or others. We also look for those youth who are having a hard time in school, not excelling academically. Most of the young people, however, are in this middle range. The idea is that by creating a community of youth of this variation, we see the entire boat rising together and that’s something that we’re really excited about.”
The Grow Dat program runs for six months from January to June. From January to May, students come in after school for two hours once a week and from 8:00-3:00 on Saturdays, where they have plenty of time in the field from harvesting, weeding, maintaining the crops to selling and working at local markets. In fact, at Hollygrove Market and Farm last year, students grew 3,000 lbs. of food and sold about $5,000 worth of produce. This year, there was 7,500 lbs. grown and $13,500 sold! Of all the food that we grow, we sell 60% to farmers markets, restaurants, and buyers, and donate 40% to area food banks, Crescent City Café, which has a hunger relief effort, as well as providing food for membership based organizations like the Congress of Day Laborers and Stand with Dignity. The youth are very proud of this, that we are able to achieve and exceed our goals.”
In addition to producing food, students also participate in workshops and other educational classes. “The other half of their time is spent in workshops that are connected to education curriculum pillars, which are agriculture, nutrition, and wellness. The idea is that young people are more likely to eat the food that they are growing if they have some sort of connection with it in the kitchen. We have a basic demo kitchen in which we bring harvested food out of the ground and have cooking classes and one-on-one nutrition consultation so that youth can have individualized health action plans. They are also looking into issues surrounding food justice. So who in the city, country, and world has access to food? How affordable is it? What are worker rights around the industry in terms of salary and working conditions?”
One of the greatest rewards of the Grow Dat Youth Farm program is seeing how much the students have changed by the end of the program, Leo said. “Everyone comes with a different piece and by the end, it really feels like a family. That feels incredible because throughout the six-month process, people are learning to build trust, not only with one another, but also trust with the direction of what Grow Dat is doing with young people and consumers. As a farmer, it’s really incredible to see how people are not just faster and more efficient in the fields, but also how they’re more communicative and good at resolving conflicts and troubleshooting issues in the field on their own.”
These young farmers at Grow Dat Youth Farm are truly the future leaders of our city. Through farming, the program provides a safe space “for young people to come together, create community, and grow their professional, communicational, and life skills,” added Leo. "Even if you are not going to become a farmer, you are engaged in something that takes you beyond your school or a regular job program. In addition, the city is definitely in need of greater and affordable access to fresh, sustainably grown food, and our young people here in the program are interlinked with that mission.”
For more information about Grow Dat Youth Farm, please visit their website, Facebook, and Twitter.