It is hard to miss the small campus of buildings marking the entrance to Grow Dat Youth Farm, which operates from a once-obscure stretch of New Orleans City Park. After all, these buildings, fashioned from recycled shipping containers, are painted bright green and stacked upon each other like giant blocks.
What is less obvious to casual visitors however, is the impact Grow Dat is making for the diverse group of high school students who work the farm plots here. Grow Dat Youth Farm aims to help young people develop as leaders through the hands-on work of cultivating a farm together.
“The goal is transformational change, which is obviously a lofty goal, but given the right circumstances and factors, it’s achievable,” says Grow Dat co-director Johanna Gilligan. “The first part is, it’s coming from them. They’re coming here on their own; they want to be part of something.”
Each spring, her group recruits teenagers from different high schools to work the City Park farm site as paid team members. They learn the basics of farming, they learn about healthy diets and they find out a great deal about themselves.
“They all come from different backgrounds, but they’re all doing something that’s new for them and that really helps them to open up,” says Gilligan.
“They’re bonding through the meaningful work of growing food for their community. Essentially it’s this excellent community development tool.”
This past summer marked Grow Dat’s first year of production, when it harvested more than 7,000 pounds of food. The farm donates 40 percent of its haul to groups like the Second Harvest Food Bank, while the rest is sold at farmers markets or brought home by Grow Dat students to share with their families and neighborhoods.
As Grow Dat Youth Farm gears up for its next class, it will host field trips from local schools, organize a plant sale as a fundraiser and lead tours and volunteer activities for convention groups and others interested in its work.
“This is about developing the potential of youth and getting more healthy food into the community and those two engines just drive one another,” says Gilligan.
See updates on the group’s events and activities at GrowDatYouthFarm.org.