NOLA’s Urban Farms and Gardens: Reimagining Food Sovereignty and Cultivating Black Culture

One of the first things people think when they hear “New Orleans,” is deliciously unique cuisine. Tourists rave about the restaurants in the Crescent City, a culinary mecca. And even critics corroborate – a 2023 survey named New Orleans number one on the list of “best food cities in the U.S.” However, in a city as unapologetically eccentric and diverse as New Orleans, something seems off about the fact that most of the establishments on these lists are inaccessible to the individuals who really give the city its flavor. 

Many New Orleanians, 56-percentage of whom are Black, are lacking when it comes to grocery stores and places to purchase fresh produce. On average in the United States, the ratio of grocery stores to people is 1 to 8,500. In New Orleans, that ratio is 1 to 14,000. With the lack of nearby grocery stores offering fresh food, individuals and families often need to travel to access produce. This may be virtually impossible for those living below the poverty line, with limited transportation options. 

Ashley Webb, founder of Barcelo Gardens, a community garden and fresh produce market in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward, says, “Having to drive so far for good produce was a hindrance” that “got us motivated in the first place.” In 2015, while living in Los Angeles, Webb attended a gardening gathering run by Ron Finley, a fashion designer and green activist working to end inner city food deserts in the United States. Finley sparked inspiration in Webb, and she joined his horticulture revolution. Starting with small gardens, Webb began to grow what she could, with Finley’s knowledge and advice rooted in the fertile soil of her mind. Two years later, she and her husband found themselves in New Orleans, about two miles from the nearest grocery store. 

According to Webb, “You may be able to get things here and there at a corner store, but most of them do not carry fresh food. We’ve looked, we’ve asked, we’ve offered.” And by offered, she means offered her services as a gardener, and now a farmer. Once Webb  and her husband Andres realized that because of their zip code, they face restrictions in acquiring fresh food and local produce, they knew they needed to continue planting. They bought a vacant lot to build their own community garden, spreading Ron Finley’s “seeds” thousands of miles from where they were first planted 

Now, six years later, Barcelo Gardens has expanded to two more vacant plots of land and Webb views this work as “going back to the way humans are supposed to be.”

Food is Resistance and Land is Survival 

For enslaved Africans in the Americas, food became a means of resistance and preserving culture. Stories and historical accounts of rebellion during the period of enslavement in the US include some instances of violent resistance through food. For example, enslaved Black women who prepared food for their masters would sometimes spit in or poison it. Other instances of resistance through food were less violent and more covert. 

At Monticello, the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson, families he enslaved supplemented the meager provisions they were given through personal gardens and small-scale subsistence farming. Those provisions included half-pound of salted pork and ten pounds of cornmeal, which the enslaved individuals produced themselves, laboring from sunup to sundown six days a week, under terrorizing, aggressive supervision. A couple enslaved by Jefferson, Bagwell and Minerva Granger, were able to retain some wealth from their produce. Records show that the Grangers sold what they grew to Jefferson’s free family, likely in addition to the nearby market. 

It is difficult to believe that with the horrific violence they faced from white overseers and the overall lack of humanity they were granted, enslaved individuals at Monticello were able to ever experience joy. However, they were able to claim something for their own, something they could pass on, that would rejuvenate, grow and provide nutrients, as well as a connection to their ancestral past and a future they likely never imagined would exist. 

Additional accounts from the Jefferson family, found at Monticello, prove ancestral and cultural connection did play a role in what was grown at the gardens of enslaved people on the plantation. Minerva Granger is an example. She continued to nurture her ancestral connections through her garden, while claiming sovereignty over her food, the fruits of her labor. Minerva cultivated cultural crops like potatoes, okra, watermelon and gherkins, among other fruits, veggies, and roots still used in African-American cuisine today. 

Granger most likely learned to care for these plants from her father, Squire, whose last name is unknown, but who, per records, sold these plants to Jefferson’s free Black family and maybe nearby markets as well. Offering sovereignty over food as well as other aspects of their lives, gardens were crucial to the livelihoods of a number of enslaved individuals, not only at Monticello. 

Firsthand accounts also shed light on the daily lives of enslaved Blacks living on plantations and their attempts to preserve identity through resistance, against fortified attempts to erase their culture. Charles Ball, in Fifty Years in Chains, detailed his life and the importance of small scale gardens on plantations, writing, “The reader must not suppose that, on this plantation, we had nothing to eat beyond the corn and salt. This was far from the case. I have already described the gardens, or patches, cultivated by the people, and the practice which they universally followed of working on Sunday, for wages. In addition to all these, an industrious, managing slave would contrive to gather up a great deal to eat.” 

Sundays were the one day enslaved individuals got for themselves, between laboring for their overseers, but on these days they could take what plants they produced on their patches and reclaim the products of their labor.

After the shackles of slavery were lifted, now-free Black farmers and gardeners looked to cultivate their own land, using the skills they knew. At the time, the only available way for them to work out their green thumbs was sharecropping arrangements. Restricted from owning land, formerly enslaved Black people signed onto wildly unfair deals, where they would live off a slim portion of white-owned land, in exchange for giving the landowners the majority of their crop. These landowners were not all wealthy; about two thirds of them were poor whites, but they found more mobility than their Black counterparts. 

The newly freed African-Americans lacked capital and credit and were exploited even further because of that, getting trapped into generational cycles of poverty. Many African-Americans faced the reality that freedom was not turning out as they had expected, but like their relatives before them, they grew foods they knew and were familiar with, providing them with comfort and a connection to those who faced similar struggles and planted these same seeds before. In the face of adversity, the act of cultivating the land remained a powerful symbol of resistance and resilience, but it remained impossible to do it on their own, for their own. 

The Homestead Act was passed in the late 1800s by Abraham Lincoln, “to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial burdens from all shoulders and to give everyone an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” He passed this act with the intention to provide more access to all and incentivize westward expansion, so that people would move to the “new”  Western territory. However, this was done so at the expense of Native peoples, stripping them of their land. Indigenous people of Northern America have never recovered from the impact of The Homestead Act and similar colonial legislation and violence. The Homestead Act, however, successfully encouraged white landowners to move west, which freed-up land for free Black people. 

With institutional discrimination and and practices like redlining, Black people, including farmers, have been kept from owning and cultivating land for arbitrary reasons. Still, resistance through food continued to be a popular way to reclaim sovereignty, even in more recent history.

The term redlining refers to the 1930s New Deal era government mortgage program, where maps were created, denoting the value of neighborhoods within around 200 cities across the US. Homes in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black residents were deemed risky investments, and therefore not eligible for mortgage loans. Redlining heavily impacted the way Black and low income neighborhoods developed, generally causing neighborhood deterioration by reducing the prevalence of basic services like healthcare, banking, job opportunities, public transportation and access to nutritious fresh produce.

Food desserts: What are they? 

Ms. Gloria Ward, a 75 year old Black woman living in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood, moved down south with the hopes of escaping the rampant crime back home in Chicago. “The crime in Chicago was so bad, someone broke into my home, and so I came down here to get over the fright,” she said. 

She soon realized she could garden year-round here. “In Chicago you only have a few months to garden. But here…the weather is just fantastic. So I love gardening, and I like that I can do a lot of community stuff here. I like to do things for the community and I like feeding people.” And that’s exactly what she began to do in Tremé. 

Starting her own garden, which she named “Ms. Gloria’s Garden,” out of an abandoned lot, Ward (known as “Ms. Glo” to her community) decided she needed to do something about the lack of fresh produce available in her neighborhood. She saw a problem and began to think of how she could fix it..

One day Ward was sitting around and thought to herself, “I need a salad!,” but failed to find one anywhere close to her new home in Tremé. Her stomach pained her, at which point she knew that she had been “eating too much ice cream and too much fried chicken.” Thinking of her motto, “you are what you’ve been eating,” she feared that  she did not really know what she was eating. 

Ward claims that the most important part of her work is providing accessible fresh food, that people can know how it’s grown and what it’s good for in terms of medicinal and culinary properties. She wants to combat food deserts, while also bringing in culturally- relevant crops and plants. She wants to provide necessary preventive nutrition and remedies for health problems that run rampant in Black communities, like Tremé. 

Almost 16 percent of Orleans Parish residents are described as “food insecure,” according to a 2021 estimate by Feed America. In the US overall, it is 13 percent, with Louisiana having the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation. Those living in neighborhoods like Tremé and the Ninth Ward live in what is known as a food desert. A food desert in an urban area is defined as anywhere that is over a mile to the nearest retailer of fresh produce. 

Ward recognizes this problem, just like dozens of other gardeners and farmers growing in New Orleans today, and looks for a solution – to cultivate culture, crops, and community all together.

Truck Farming: A Redlining Work-around 

Fighting for agricultural autonomy, Black farmers found ways to work around being restricted from land ownership. They continued finding comfort in their cuisine, but sought  financial independence within the constraints of this system designed to keep them in perpetual servitude. To this end, Black farmers in New Orleans pioneered truck farming, as a strategic response to redlining. Truck farms, as detailed by an article in Scalawag, involved setting up on corners or making rounds through neighborhoods to sell produce.  Black truck farming traced back to the era before supermarkets were common,  until the 1960s, where the post-slavery generations leveraged the opportunity to transport food to urban areas.

These practices allowed Black farmers and gardeners their own version of agricultural autonomy, in a similar vein as that of their ancestors. Without having to work within the system that prohibited them from providing to their own community, Black farmers went beyond the field, taking to the streets to profit off their plants.

Although truck farming offered access to individuals in food deserts, problems arose in terms of land ownership issues, as it became difficult to keep up with corner stores and fast food restaurants, which could refill shelves faster but less healthfully. So, truck farming fizzled out. Without affordable leases being offered to Black farmers, with Black farmers still being denied the loans banks offer their white counterparts, and with landlords making false promises, it has become impossible for small-scale farmers to really keep up. 

Ward herself faces this issue. The whole neighborhood knows her as a community gardener, and she was even asked by a local activist’s lawyer to be a character witness at his upcoming trial regarding alleged vandalism.

However, even community icons like Ward face discriminatory practices, when it comes to owning and operating land. “I make their property look good, but the problem I’ve had is every time I fix up a garden and make it really nice. They tell me I can be there for free, then they come and take it back,” she says. One property owner offered her the space, then came back and “wanted $3000. I was like, I can’t. I can grow anywhere. I moved across the street and then they had given me a lease there for five years, and then they had a big fire. And the people who own the property, they wanted $1,200 a month. And then they say you can’t move all this stuff, I said watch me.”

Ward’s garden is located next to ArtSpace, a project that offers work/housing  for artists, cultural workers and families. The project was intended to restore a location, the Bell School campus, that was abandoned post-Katrina, to its role as a community center. Despite their promise to give back to the community, ArtSpace management has some qualms about Ward’s garden. “They don’t like me having volunteers. They want their space, they have a bathroom here, but I have to take everybody to my house. And they complain about me and the garden all the time.”

As it was a problem for the Grangers at Monticello, as it was a problem for the sharecroppers in the Antebellum South, as it was a problem for the truck farmers, access to land remains a problem for Black farmers in New Orleans, Louisiana, and America at large. 

Today’s Black Urban Farmers Pave a Path to Food Sovereignty

It is not easy for people like Gloria Ward and Ashley Webb, just to name a few, but they are pioneer people, gardening to gain what they deserve, security when it comes to food. 

Webb works with her husband and other local vendors to bring a variety of items to sell at farmers markets daily, at multiple locations in the underserved eastern side of the city. Still, she finds that they lack customers and funding. They need “money and grants to be more accessible. Farming is expensive and to be able to continue to do it, you need support.”

Ward is trying to find ways to spread the word even more. She embodies the epitome of accessibility, offering the fruits of her labor to anyone that needs it, practically for free. She says, “People don’t want to come and spend the money, so you gotta get where you can [and] take the Louisiana Purchase card. But with my garden, you can have whatever you want. Just make a donation. And so people come by and call and say, ‘you got mustard greens?’ They come by, they’ll give you two or three dollars, yeah.” 

What they are really working towards is food sovereignty, ensuring that Black people can have control over their own food, providing access and education for their communities in as many ways as they can. Programs like “Shabbat at the Garden,” and “Self-Care Sundays” are what Ward says really draws people to her garden. She wants people to come to the garden and get out of their comfort zones; she wants them to experience joy. 

The garden has a joyful appearance. A hand-painted wooden sign with gold letters on a teal background reads “MS. GLO’S GARDEN” in all caps. A black painted fence with white polka-dots surrounds the garden, an artistic trend that continues inside the space. Beautiful barrels filled with passion flowers are placed evenly all around, painted and donated by local artists who wanted to “give a lil’ something back,” to the garden. The one in front is a portrait of “Ms. Glo” herself, dressed in bright teal, cat-eye lenses, matching teal dangling earrings, with the whitest, brightest grin on her wise, warm and loving face. “Welcome” is written across her chest. Her medicinal garden, in the middle of the enclosure, houses beds of turmeric, her favorite plant—an anti-inflammatory that she claims prevents Alzheimer’s and cancer and fights arthritis and depression. (All of these diseases have been linked to inflammation.)

On the way out, a barrel denotes the exit. It depicts a pair of well-loved, young black hands holding a tree, the roots intertwined with the fingers, a reminder of the past. A reminder of the Grangers and the sharecroppers and the truck farmers. A reminder that Black people can own food, that they can hold it in their hands and facilitate growth. 


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