Jenga Mwendo says she remembers a Lower 9th Ward where "you never had to worry about going hungry." Backyard gardens were a part of every block, every home. "Everybody was growing something — some had a fruit tree, pecan trees were everywhere," she says. But after the floods following Hurricane Katrina devastated the neighborhood, those community gardens and urban gardeners struggled to blossom, and the Lower 9th Ward is now considered a "food desert" — not a neighborhood grocery in sight. While other neighborhoods have access to a growing number of chain grocery stores, the backyard farmers in the Lower 9th aren't so much a part of a trend in food-conscious urban farming as they are providers for a community in need. Backyard farming is a "cultural practice we've grown away from as the food system has industrialized, and we rely more on the grocery store than we rely on ourselves," Mwendo says.
This year, Mwendo organized the Backyard Gardener's Network (BGN) by compiling a database of neighborhood farmers (a list of roughly 100 backyard growers and their information) and helping organize two community gardens farmed by 15 to 20 Lower 9th residents.
"I'm also meeting a lot of people who are growing, or have grown vegetables in the past, or remember a time when everybody was growing," she says.
How did you create the network?
I started organizing people in the community garden in the Lower 9th, and from there I started meeting other people who were doing urban agriculture work or had their own backyard gardens and then slowly developed into what the BGN is now — essentially an organization that brings people together around urban agriculture, with the focus being on the people who garden on their own in their backyards.
What are people growing?
We just got out of a season where people were growing tomatoes, okra. Now we're growing greens. It's standard New Orleans food. (Laughs) In the community garden, we were growing watermelon this summer. In the fall, we're growing kale and spinach, collards, lettuce, with the intention of giving out baskets to people in the neighborhood to show how productive a community garden can be and to welcome people who are interested — sort of a friendly neighborhood gesture. Hopefully a successful marketing technique.
It's one thing to organize a community garden and build it, but maintaining it is another project in and of itself. That's been something I've been working on since 2007 — just making sure people know about it, making sure it's accessible, they feel comfortable doing work. If they want their own plot, making sure there's room, seeds and tools available to work with.
What do you want to see happen with the network?
It depends on the community's wants and needs. The mission of the BGN is community-building. Strengthen and sustain the Lower 9th community through urban agriculture. The gardens and the growing are wonderful byproducts of a strong community. Sustaining any cultural practice is making sure there's a supportive community around that. The vision is for everyone in the Lower 9th to feel that this is something they can do.
Are you organizing a food co-op?
It's a concept developing now. The BGN didn't officially start until early 2009. I started really honing in on what exactly this organization would be. The Lower 9th has a food-access problem: We don't have any grocery stores down here. Getting food is an issue especially for people who don't have reliable transportation. It would be great to have people who grow an excess of what they grow for themselves and get together and sell that food affordably.
What kind of toll does lack of food access take on the neighborhood?
It makes it harder for people to decide to live here, to come back. It's not only food. There's only one school. There's a lack of amenities. It's difficult for businesses because it's sort of a Catch-22: Businesses won't come unless the population increases, but the population isn't going to increase unless there are amenities, things in the neighborhood for people.
I'm finding that my neighborhood is a community of survivors, a community of people who live here because they want to live here. They believe in the community. They want to see it come back and be better than it ever was before.