The New Orleans Food & Farm Network intimately understands the potential of seemingly small investments.

After all, the local nonprofit gives away free seeds to local gardeners and urban farmers to help them produce more fresh, healthy food in the city.

That is why leaders of the network were so excited to be among just nine nonprofits across the country selected to receive a Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award, a grant of $7,000 from WhyHunger, an advocacy group co-founded by the late musician and activist Harry Chapin to fight the causes of hunger. Another local Self-Reliance Award winner was the Community Center of St. Bernard, which provides financial education for low-income residents.

The Food & Farm Network will use its funding to support its Farm Yard Project.

“What we’re doing is working in the neighborhoods to create more backyard gardens, and our approach is to train and empower neighborhood leaders to become garden leaders,” says Food & Farm Network executive director Daphne Dervin. “These leaders can become sources of information and motivation for their neighbors to develop these gardens.” 

The network typically brings in soil and other garden-building basics, and then works with residents to create garden beds and plant seeds. Once these roots are laid, the role of the neighborhood garden leader becomes more important. This is the individual who keeps in touch with new gardeners, providing hands-on assistance, advice and encouragement as they ascend the gardening learning curve.

“It’s a support system – it’s not just about installing a garden,” says Dervin.

“We want to make this very sustainable. We’re there to support it and make sure it’s successful.”

One garden leader who exemplifies this approach is Jenga Mwendo, a New Orleans native who built a career in computer animation in New York before returning home to the Lower 9th Ward.   
“I wasn’t a gardener, but I was born in this neighborhood and I was looking for ways to contribute and make my presence here count,” she says.

So she started the Backyard Gardener’s Network, which has built two community gardens and helped organize the many backyard growers working their own vegetable plots throughout the neighborhood. Mwendo says the network is about improving food access in a neighborhood with no full-service grocery for miles around, and also creating a hands-on, highly visible medium for community building.

“It’s bringing people together,” she says of the gardens. “People want to be able to feel they have control over what’s happening in the neighborhood.”