Neighborhood Heroes is a series from Ring that shares stories of ordinary people who make an extraordinary difference in their neighborhoods, helping make them safer and better for everyone. So far, we’ve brought you to Koreatown, Los Angeles and Wyandanch, New York. The next stop on our journey is New Orleans, where Grow Dat Youth Farm helps grow the next crop of young leaders — by teaching them how to grow food for the community.
Watch the video to see how Neighborhood Heroes in New Orleans are feeding the community and nourishing the minds of future leaders.
Healthy food is essential for healthy communities to thrive. But in New Orleans, like many cities, some neighborhoods don’t have access to farm-fresh produce. They’re food deserts with lots of fast-food restaurants but few or no healthy, sustainable options.
Grow Dat Youth Farm aims to fill that gap, not only supplying vegetables and fruits to the community but providing New Orleans youth with leadership skills for life.
“We are trying to change the world — that is exactly what we are trying to do,” says Devon Turner, executive director of Grow Dat, which was founded in 2011. “We are trying to change our food systems, and in doing so, trying to create stronger and healthier and better communities for the young people who are in our programs. That has to be a team effort.”
The Grow Dat farm sits on seven acres in City Park, where 32,000 pounds of fresh produce is grown and harvested annually. About a third is distributed to low-income residents through the Shared Harvest program, to support people who otherwise have little or no access to fresh food.
“Mid-City is one of our neighboring communities. There is a diverse group of people there, in terms of race, socioeconomic status, educational background, employment and so on,” Devon says. “Folks in that area do require increased food access; there are huge gaps, literally, if you cross certain streets. There are huge gaps in life expectancy, and in health. We’ve been unpacking some of the root causes behind that.”
The remaining produce is sold through Grow Dat’s farm stand and farmers’ markets. Every step of the way, from tending to the land to harvesting crops to selling produce, local youth are involved.
That includes people like Alexander Sanders, who never expected he would become the assistant farm manager he is today. Before he joined Grow Dat, like many teens he was focused on hanging out with his friends and playing basketball. And he didn’t eat many vegetables.
“I lived in an area I call a food swamp, which is known as a place that’s just surrounded by endless fast food and doesn’t have a source of healthy food, except for one, which is Walmart,” Alexander says. “Before working here, it was like heaven.”
But Alexander’s tastes would soon come to change. Grow Dat visited his high school, sparking his interest. He joined five years ago through the Core Leadership Program, in which New Orleans youth come to the farm for five months to learn to grow food and develop skills like public speaking and facilitation. That can lead to a nine-month Advanced Fellowship paid position, and part-time Crew Leader Fellowships are available for high school graduates ages 18-26. A total of 320 youth leaders have graduated from the programs.
Beyond farming, “they’re also learning about different people, and their experiences, and their life stories,” Devon says. “They’re learning that difference is okay, that disagreement is okay, but how do we still build when all of those challenges arise? Like, how do we still go and produce food? How do we still grow together? How do we still be in community together? So they’re learning a range of skills — some that are more technical, some that are more relationship-oriented, and [some] communication guidelines.”
Those skills boost not only the young people who acquire them, but also the neighborhoods these youth leaders return to. Growing these young leaders from the ground up has a ripple effect as they touch people through Grow Dat and beyond, applying their skills in their communities.
In Alexander’s case, once he started to work with the land, his view began to shift. He tried vegetables like turnips, radish, squash and zucchini, which he had never tasted before. He began to understand Grow Dat’s sustainable farming processes, like cover cropping and composting. He found he had a special affinity for tending to plants like cauliflower.
But the most valuable lesson? “Love the land,” Alexander says. “It’s kind of how I live my life now, and one of the things that means the most to me. [It] has shaped how I’ve lived beyond just farming [and] created new habits for me in my life.”
The 16-year-old who had never tried a radish is now a 21-year-old pescatarian who proudly cooks for friends and family as well as his vegetarian fiancée.
“I’ve grown strong morals,” Alexander says. “I buy less plastic. I create budgets with my money, I have bank accounts, [I’m] working on my credit. [Before] I didn’t know or even care about any of those things. I think that I’m in full adulting mode — so I would say I’ve grown strongly since I’ve worked here.”
Through a powerful combination of personal transformation and collective action, built on the belief that leaders cultivate more leaders, Grow Dat is changing what’s on the plates of New Orleanians today while instilling lessons for the generation of tomorrow.
“I think less in terms of ‘when is the problem solved,’ because we will always have challenges to face,” Devon says. “But the work of developing leaders, that should always be a thing that we want to do. Because young people will be stewards alongside us: [stewards] of our resources and of our people. So the work is never done, because leadership always needs to be developed.”
We are proud to feature Alexander, Devon and all of the Grow Dat team as Neighborhood Heroes in New Orleans. They prove ordinary people can create real, positive change in their communities.
We’re sharing the inspiring stories of real neighbors all over the world who are creating positive change in their local communities. If you know a Neighborhood Hero in your community whom we should feature, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.