Rebuilding Community Around Food in New Orleans
1 month ago
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.