Rebuilding Community Around Food in New Orleans
Jenga Mwendo is building gardens in the Lower Ninth's food deserts
When Jenga Mwendo, 34, bought a house in her hometown New Orleans in 2005, it was meant to be an investment property. Instead, it turned out to be the first step in her passion for connecting people, healing the community and bringing much needed healthy, affordable, fresh food to the neighborhood where she was born and raised, the Lower Ninth.
When she first purchased the fixer-upper, Mwendo was living in New York City with her daughter, Azana, who was 3-years-old at the time, and working at Blue Sky Studios, as a computer animator.
“I had been in New York for 10 years, coming here to go to school. I always felt that I had to leave New Orleans to reach my goals,” she says. “I thought I might eventually go back to New Orleans to live in the house but it wasn’t an immediate plan,”
Though Mwendo had a successful career, she always felt there was something missing. She says that giving back and being entrenched in the fabric of a community were a part of her DNA. Raised by parents who had been active in New Orleans for generations, including playing a role in the Black Liberation Party, Mwendo understood the importance of being a part of a community.
“I was making a lot of money working at Pixar, but I had to ask myself, if I died tomorrow, what did I want to be on my tombstone?” she says. “I was leading a financially comfortable life, but the kind of work I was doing was really divorced from any human contact,”
Still, it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans that Mwendo decided to return to New Orleans.
“Katrina was definitely the catalyst for me to come back. It taught me that New Orleans might not always be there,” Mwendo says.
Mwendo’s beloved paternal grandmother died of breast cancer two weeks after Katrina, and her maternal grandmother suffered a mild stroke after the storm.
“When that happened, I knew I had to come back home to be with family and to help rebuild,” Mwendo says.
When Mwendo moved back home in 2007, she found that much of the neighborhood had been abandoned. Her own long, narrow shotgun style house, typical of those found in the Lower Ninth, not only needed the rehabbing that she had planned on, but repairs from flooding.
Mwendo became a one-woman community organizer, focused on getting people to come back, in spite of all that had been lost in the devastating storm.
”I started researching to see who owned the vacant properties and reaching out to encourage people to come back,” she says.
It wasn’t easy to convince people to return. Many homeowners owed more on the properties than they were worth. Others had no homes to come back to, and no money to rebuild. The city was also plagued by infrastructure issues: lack of access to hospitals, and even fresh food to eat. While Hurricane Katrina didn’t create all of these problems, it did complicate them.
In thinking about these access issues, Mwendo got the idea that gardening and growing food in community gardens would not only feed people, but bring them together.
“This neighborhood was never going to come back if the people didn’t have a reason to come back,” Mwendo says.
Mwendo had no gardening experience, and so called the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, which helps establish and support community garden projects and urban farms in the city.
Sanjay Kharod, the executive director of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network says, “The issue of lack of affordable, fresh food in underserved neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth was nothing new to the residents, but Katrina uncovered the inequalities that the rest of the world didn’t see, especially around access.”
Mwendo started with two garden spots—two of the 90,000 lots left vacant after Katrina—and the organizations helped with some funding, materials and volunteer training.
Twelve residents showed up the first day for clean up, including Curtis Phipps, who lives across the street from one of the gardens.
“I was glad to help because I grew up around gardening and my dad taught me how to grow,” Phipps says.
Eleven gardeners now regularly tend to the plots, and in 2009, Mwendo established the Backyard Gardeners Network, a small nonprofit, to continue the work of gardening and growing fresh food in the Lower Ninth. The larger of the two spaces, known as the Guerilla Gardens, not only serves as a growing space, but a space for other community events.
The gardens did more than bring people together—they addressed a real need for access to fresh food. Amazingly, though New Orleans is known for its cuisine, it has several neighborhoods that are considered food deserts.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a census district where 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line and 33 percent of residents live over a mile from the nearest supermarket. Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts. New Orleans tops the list of the top food deserts, along with Chicago, New York, Detroit, Atlanta, Memphis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Camden, New Jersey.
According to the Congressional Hunger Coalition, there are now 20 grocery stores in New Orleans compared to 30 pre-Katrina. A single grocery store in New Orleans must service 16,000 residents, which is three times higher than the national average.
Nearly 30 percent (5,500) of Lower Ninth residents do not have regular access to transportation to grocery stores. In fact, for much of the time that Mwendo and her daughter have been back, they didn’t own a car, and the closest full service grocery, a Walmart, is approximately 4 miles away.
“If I needed to go to the store, I would have to borrow a car from my mother, or use my scooter and put my grocery bags on the handles.” Mwendo says.
Mwendo and several members of the community are forming a Lower Ninth Ward Food Access Coalition to create a neighborhood where fresh, quality food is readily available and affordable to all the residents. “Small store owners often raise the prices of food basics such as eggs, milk and bread to the point that they are unaffordable for residents,” she says. ”We want to not just have a grocery store, but set policies for what kind of food comes into out community, through this effort.”
There are other groups working to being affordable, healthy food to residents. Actor and activist, Wendell Pierce, his business partner Troy Henry and Jim Hatchett created Sterling Farms, have opened convenience stores, and hope to launch a grocery store soon.
Still, while Mwendo and many of the people working on the gardens see the benefits, there are other people who see gardening and urban farming as a step back from the progress that African Americans have made.
“Convincing the people under 40 to come and garden with us is more difficult,” Summer Moore, 29, who works with Mwendo and came to New Orleans through after working on agriculture projects around the country. “For many African Americans, farming and gardening reminds them of the southern history of slave and sharecropper labor.”
Mwendo, who is also a national IATP Food and Community Fellow, was recently hired on a part time basis by the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development to help set a food agenda for the community.
“It was an easy connection, because I was already doing community organizing around food access through the gardens,” she says. “Our goal with the Coalition is to have a comprehensive community-created food plan, and a grocery store is just one part of the work.”
Mwendo and other members of the Coalition recently visited a market that was interested in opening a store in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“What we saw during that visit was a number of health code violations, poor food selection and poor customer service,” Mwendo says. “Our community deserves quality food, and a clean store, and to be treated well.”
On Oct. 20 Mwendo and the Coalition will be hosting an event to showcase their work, and to raise funds. The Coalition is determined to show the business sector in New Orleans that the Lower Ninth Ward not only needs an affordable and accessible place to buy fresh food, but can sustain and support a grocery store.
While Mwendo has taken on this new project, she still remains committed to gardening and growing food as a way to elevate the community. One major challenge is New Orleans’ often turbulent weather. In August, Mwendo and her daughter headed to Mississippi to ride out Hurricane Isaac. They returned after five days to a home that had no electrical power.
“We got mostly wind damage that blew down several of our citrus and fig trees,” Mwendo says. “It also blew back the metal roofs on the garden shed structure.”
Still, Mwendo’s spirit and commitment can’t be broken by a storm. For her, it really is about making her community healthy and whole.
“Growing food is the thing that held us together,” she says.