As the sun creeps through the February clouds in New Orleans, Krystle Sims-Cameron picks up her pair of loppers and prunes the dead stems, dried leaves, and over-ripe fruits of the kumquat trees growing in her garden. When the trees grow lush with fruit, her garden will open for the public to come and harvest what they like. Her efforts aren’t just rooted in the city’s deep agricultural history. They’re a deliberate attempt to circumvent a food production and distribution system that regularly ignores the health and welfare of Black and other marginalized communities.
Sims-Cameron is an urban gardener and founder of For the HortiCulture, a nonprofit organization addressing the food insecurity that plagues many families in New Orleans, especially in lower-income and Black neighborhoods. To create sustainable, community-owned and -operated alternatives that will provide residents with greater access to food, residents like Sims-Cameron have leased plots in their neighborhoods to promote community gardening. Despite government programs meant to address decades of systemic neglect, independent growers and grassroots organizations still find themselves stymied by protocols and requirements that in practice favor large-scale, well-resourced corporations.
It is no secret that New Orleans is known for its signature dishes like gumbo and jambalaya and its rich culinary heritage. However, the city has long faced food deserts in low-income zip codes, where many Black residents struggle to obtain fresh food. Companies intentionally avoid certain neighborhoods when deciding where to open their grocery stores despite the clear need for them, says Jasmine Ratliff, a Lower Ninth Ward resident and co-executive director of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), a coalition of Black-led organizations working toward liberation and Black sovereignty.
“People in these areas are still buying food, they are still eating from somewhere,” she said.
Creole traditions and culture may bind the city’s residents together, but historically, redlining has driven Black families into flood-prone regions without adequate investment and resources, complicating their recovery after natural disasters.
The ongoing pandemic has only made these disparities worse. According to the Center for Planning Excellence, a planning and policy nonprofit organization in Louisiana, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 35% of lower-income and non-white neighborhoods in New Orleans are food insecure. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “low-income census tracts with a substantial number or share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods.” But some residents from low-income and Black neighborhoods prefer an alternative term: “food apartheid.”
Dara Cooper, a food justice activist and co-founder of the NBFJA, defines food apartheid as “the systematic destruction of Black self-determination” to control food supply by introducing unhealthy foods and a “blatantly discriminatory corporate-controlled food system” that has contributed to Black communities suffering from disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other ailments related to poor nutrition.
Reedy Brooks, who notes her ancestors were sharecroppers, is an urban gardener and the executive director of the edible holistic landscaping firm Glory Gardens, which trains young adults in nursery and greenhouse management. Brooks says food apartheid is intentionally upheld by structures in power that deny the right of people to define their own agriculture systems that are healthy and culturally appropriate.
“We don’t need food justice, we need food sovereignty,” Brooks said.
Food insecurity in the Lower Ninth Ward
Located in the easternmost part of the city is the Lower Ninth Ward, a low-income neighborhood bounded by the Mississippi River flowing north to Lake Pontchartrain on the west and St. Bernard Parish on the east. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Black or African American people accounted for 90.6% of the residents in the ward from 2015-19. The ward was devastated by flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While rows of plants and amber-colored vines cover the trellis at the Guerilla Gardens, a gardening space for community members in the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood is still scarred by vacant lots and debris from the flood nearly two decades later. The recovery has been slow in Black neighborhoods—the Lower Ninth Ward has a single food store that is owned and operated by a ward resident. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Circle Food Store in the nearby Seventh Ward featured many Black food vendors, but after it reopened, only a few remained. As a result, culturally significant foods like collard greens, smoked turkey neck, and mustard greens are much harder to obtain.
“The nearest grocery store is at least three, four miles down, in another parish called St. Bernard Parish—you cannot walk by any means,” said Ratliff.
Getting around in the neighborhood without a car is difficult and expensive, and the lack of public transportation in these neighborhoods has exacerbated the lack of access to fresh produce. Ratliff says that after Hurricane Ida in 2021, there was a significant reduction in the number of bus routes by the RTA, a public transit agency, because there weren’t enough employees.
Following Hurricane Katrina, the number of people leasing land to grow food increased. Through training programs and seminars, local organizations such as Sprout NOLA and Backyard Gardens Network encourage residents to learn how to nurture plants and join a community of growers. But while resources for learning how to cultivate food gardens were plentiful, many struggled to find a space to set up their gardens.
A couple in the city gave Sims-Cameron their land to lease after seeing advertisements for her backyard gardening initiative in the newspaper, she said. But Brooks and Ratliff weren’t as lucky. They had to apply for a plot through New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s (NORA) Growing Green program, a project that allows the public to lease land for urban farms, community gardens, and pocket parks. The program offers vacant lands to lease for up to three years at a rental price of $350 per year, with an option to purchase them after the third year if the land is used for urban agriculture practices. However, advocates say that the paperwork and process to access land through NORA have been prohibitive for individuals or small grassroots organizations.
Brooks experienced this complicated process firsthand. After she chose the property she wanted to lease, she thought that she could fill out the application form and wait for the approval. Instead, the process was laborious and time-consuming. She was plagued by requests for documents and questions—“Can you provide proof that you have ever farmed? Can you provide bank statements? Can you provide references? We need letters of community support. We need a letter saying you have a fiscal sponsor supporting you. We need a fundraising strategy.”
Eventually, Brooks succeeded, and her one piece of advice for those interested in leasing land through the program is to be patient. It took almost a year before she was able to lease the plot. Meanwhile, records obtained from NORA show a majority of lease transfers have been made to nonprofit organizations, corporations, or limited liability companies.
Restoring community relationships
Black families in Louisiana have had close ties with the land. After the Civil War, many worked as sharecroppers on rented land. The sharecropping system gave farmers access to small pieces of land with little to no agency. Instead of rent, the landowners required them to provide a share of the produce. High-interest rates and unpredictable harvests often trapped farmers in an endless cycle of debt. Later, as a strategy for resistance, people from Black and low-income communities pooled their resources, mutually supported one another, and created cooperatives to farm collectively.
Urban gardeners say that to hope for the local government to address the systemic issue of food insecurity in Black and marginalized neighborhoods is to imagine a “utopian society.” Instead, they’re taking inspiration from New Orleans’ agricultural history by growing crops in their backyards with low-cost supplies to become self-sufficient. Reviving the tradition of urban agriculture among New Orleans’ Black community is a way to create “safety social nets,” says Brooks.
In fact, urban gardening among Black families in New Orleans was predominant through the early 1990s. Sims-Cameron says that while growing up, she saw her neighbors growing crops like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and mirlitons in their backyards and how they would share or trade produce with each other.
“We used to have such a healthy and vibrant growing community here in New Orleans where neighbors were growing something—because it was in their culture,” she said.
Today, the shadow of slavery hovers over many Black households in New Orleans. Internalized classism and painful ties with the land and food production have driven generations to abandon agriculture in pursuit of career paths that don’t evoke their emotional history. Sims-Cameron says that urban farming culture among Black families waned as families began to direct their children away from the often intensive labor of agriculture and the time and energy it required, believing “it was better to have money to [buy produce] than to actually grow it yourself.”
Despite the trauma associated with the land, Brooks said there needs to be an emphasis on Black families’ rich histories of eco-stewardship, food production, and land management that have served as “sources of collective agency and communal resilience.”
Along with providing a space to grow their own food, leaders of community gardens see the practice as a way to restore community relationships. Advocates would like to see community institutions like food pantries spring up to complement gardens since one garden can rarely provide all the food needed for a family.
Terence Jackson, a fifth-generation farmer from Tuskegee, Alabama, works with Ratliff in making food accessible to New Orleans residents. He feels that connections between different generations are lost when people leave the land or stop growing food.
“We have to be intergenerationally connected and start being a community again—reignite and reestablish those [relationships] around food, because that’s the thing that brings everybody together, no matter what,” Jackson said.
To Ratliff, the best solution for New Orleans’ food insecurity is to make produce from community gardens available to a wider range of residents through a “cooperatively owned grocery store,” where wealth is circulated within the community rather than going to a corporation like Walmart or Amazon (which owns Whole Foods Market). Ratliff believes that non-commercial, locally grown food could become a community’s primary food source if family farms and collective community gardening become more prevalent.
Going forward, New Orleans urban gardeners want to create iterations of a cooperative model to demonstrate how agriculture can support a community through land and food sovereignty while also providing a space for mental health and wellness programming. Brooks grew up smelling the earth and holding leaves between her fingers and is now training to get registered as a horticulture therapist. She cites evidence-based research showing that growing plants helps in dealing with trauma.
Brooks is currently exploring options to provide mental health wellness programs for the elderly through gardening, and she is working with schools to include an agriculture program in the curriculum for children. Unlike families who live downtown or in wealthier parts of the city, children and adults in low-income New Orleans neighborhoods often don’t have access to leisure opportunities aside from electronics. Jackson said parents feel relieved knowing their kids are in the garden rather than doing something that may be harmful.
“Being in nature—and not in front of a screen—is so restorative,” said Sims-Cameron.
Sims-Cameron anticipates a garden ripe with fruits and vegetables, each marked with little red, yellow, and green signs that let the residents know which plant is ready to be harvested. As she sees it, this bounty will mean not only healthy food but renewed hope and bonding in the community.