by Max Elliott
Walking along the edge of the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans, Urban Roots youth intern Madison Mathews pauses by a green pond lined with bald cypress trees and asks, “Are there alligators in there?” “Um…yeah,” replies Grow Dat staff member Jabari Brown. “Whoa!” Mathews says, as wonder and concern streak across her face.
At times, this swampy landscape filled with draping Spanish moss and banana trees seems planets away from the three-and-a-half-acre Urban Roots farm in East Austin, yet, in many ways, it feels just like home: Urban Roots and Grow Dat share a similar lineage and mission.
Both organizations are relatively young (six and three years old, respectively), both are inspired by The Food Project in Boston, Massachusetts, both use sustainable farming to provide empowering paid internships to young people and both inspire the greater community to cultivate a better understanding of healthful foods. And because of the dearth of youth farming projects in the South, both have looked to each other for inspiration and support and have developed a strong regional partnership.
With support from the Kabakoff Family Foundation, the sister organizations have been exploring ways to expand their mission. This last November, four Urban Roots teenage youth leaders and two staff members (including me) visited the Grow Dat Youth Farm to work alongside their youth leaders, on the farm and in the kitchen. Since none of the Urban Roots youth leaders had ever been to Louisiana, this was a true cultural and culinary adventure. On our way there, we tasted fried boudin balls and pork cracklins, and in New Orleans, we feasted on gumbo and po’ boys and made the requisite pilgrimage to Café du Monde. We also visited other community food projects, including the Hollygrove Market and an Edible Schoolyard cooking class for first and secondgraders. Our goal for the trip was to determine how the Urban Roots and Grow Dat youths’ unique food and farming experience can help the participants to become the most effective healthful-food and farm advocates.
Youths from both organizations played team-building games, worked alongside each other on the farm, participated in a youth-oriented focus group and competed in a Top Chef-style cooking competition, where they led an interactive cooking demonstration, created their own recipes and shopped for ingredients. The Grow Dat youth started off by making a rotisserie chicken po’ boy and made a strong case for how easy it can be to make healthy modifications to the New Orleans tradition. The Urban Roots youth borrowed a seasonal recipe from an Urban Roots cooking class and made a raw kale salad with avocado and Louisiana satsuma mandarins, and bruschetta with local goat cheese, cherry tomatoes and basil purchased at the Crescent City Farmers Market. Both meals were healthy, affordable (under three dollars per person) and tasty, but the judges awarded top honors to the Urban Roots youth for how well they featured nutritional information and highlighted locally sourced foods.
Working together on the Grow Dat farm and cooking and sharing meals with each other strengthened our collaboration and allowed us all to witness the power and potential for young healthful-food ambassadors. Urban Roots youth leader Ines Malti summarized her time in New Orleans this way: “I appreciate how so many of the ideas I have, I get to share with others. We’re from different parts of the US, but we have similar knowledge and ideas…and we can work on this together.”
This spring, Grow Dat youth and staff will visit Austin for the next phase of our collaboration. Stay tuned!