As the sun set behind a line of banana trees at the seven-acre Grow Dat Youth Farm in City Park, the laughter and chatter of teenagers filled the air. Hopping between rows of tilled soil, youth farmers Corri Gahie and Simone Brown joked with each other as they pulled up turmeric roots. After months of planting and nurturing, it was finally time to harvest the fruits of their labor.
The two teens are part of a growing youth community interested in environmental justice, food insecurity, recycling, and creating a healthier planet.
Brown, 17, helped create a sustainability club for students at her school to discuss eco-friendly practices and get involved in environmentalism. Passionate about environmental justice, Brown saw Grow Dat as an opportunity for her to involve herself more heavily in her calling.
Brown’s main area of interest is the impact the oil and gas industry has on the environment and how individuals can help minimize their own carbon footprint.
“I’m personally hands-on, involved in getting more recycling in New Orleans. It’s not accessible here,” Brown said. “I’ve been trying to get compost and recycling programs at schools and educating students on how to use it.”
New Orleans recycles only about 3% of curbside waste, accepting just two out of seven types of recyclable plastic. Glass recycling is even more difficult for New Orleanians. There are few glass recycling centers and none offer curbside pickup.
For New Orleans East resident Paige Parent, 17, food insecurity is a concern. Her firsthand experience with food deserts – urban areas where affordable, good quality food is hard to find – sparked her interest in gardening and growing healthy food. She grew up surrounded by fast food and corner stores with limited and unhealthy selections – the definition of a food swamp. It was difficult for Parent’s friends and family to get to supermarkets for fresh produce.
At Parent’s school, Warren Easton High School, she wanted to establish a garden because fresh fruit was limited during lunchtime. However, the only green space on her campus also served as an athletic area.
Instead, she began growing her own home garden, with mint, rosemary, and carrots, right outside her bedroom window. At the top of her Christmas list this year is a hydroponic growing system to help expand her garden.
“I want to be able to grow my own food and know where it’s coming from,” Parent said. “What I put in my body is important to me. It affects me long term and it affects future generations.”
Parent’s garden inspired her family members to get involved in agriculture and create their own small gardens. Her family now aspires to buy acres of land in Alabama to establish a self-sustaining community.
“You can’t force people to learn but I’ve been talking to anyone who will listen about gardening,” Parent said.
Parent is an assistant crew leader at Grow Dat Youth Farms, a New Orleans-based nonprofit organization with a mission to nurture young leaders “through the meaningful work of growing food.”
The organization brings together youth from different backgrounds with the goal of creating a “more just and sustainable food system.” According to the group’s website, teens and leaders work collaboratively on Grow Dat farm, “to grow food, educate and inspire youth and adults, and build power to create personal, social and environmental change.”
In 2011, Grow Dat established a youth leadership program, which has graduated more than 320 participants since its inception.
“The program for [the youth members] is more of an active role. It’s about experiencing, as opposed to sitting down and only talking about issues,” crew leader Jarrad Degruy-Kinnard said.
Gahie and Brown are participants of the Grow Dat Youth Farm’s leadership program. The program aims to involve New Orleans’ youth ages 15 to 21 years old in environmentalism, urban agriculture, and community engagement through a paid farming opportunity. Program members are paid a starting rate of $10 an hour to attend two-hour sessions on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with longer sessions on Saturdays.
Gahie, 16, has been involved with Grow Dat’s youth leadership program since January after program representatives spoke at her school, New Orleans Charter Science & Math High School. Eager to learn about farming, and social and economic structures, Gahie applied.
“I used to live in a glass bubble. I didn’t know much about the outside world,” Gahie said. “Here we talk about food deserts and food swamps. … We talk [about] the bad conditions some migrant workers have to work in.”
In addition to agriculture lessons, Grow Dat youth leaders also attend weekly workshops. The workshops include topics such as career readiness, mental health, and how to regulate one’s emotions. It also offers diversity training regarding LGBTQ+ and neurodiverse communities including those with ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities.
Program participants come from various partner schools and neighborhoods and Grow Dat arranges free transportation to increase accessibility for students. Grow Dat is supported by a number of donors and donates 20% of its harvest to program participants with the remaining 80% being available for purchase through its 29-week farm share program.
For Brown, Parent, and Gahie, environmental justice is an important issue they are eager to learn more about, whether it’s around food insecurity, recycling, or conditions of migrant workers. They have a growing peer group whose focus is on creating a healthier environment for future generations.
“There’s always more to learn, the world is constantly progressing,” Brown said.
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