By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

We’ve all been so proud of the new recirculating farm site and community learning center in uptown New Orleans, where, right in the heart of urban sprawl, gardening beds flourish, a greenhouse grows, and healthy cooking and fitness classes are embraced by the neighbors at large.

A $440,000 award under BCBSLAF’s Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant program provided the seed money to begin this amazing city farm site (in partnership with New Orleans’ own Recirculating Farms Coalition).

Cufone give Harden a tour of the urban farm's flourishing greenhouse.
Cufone give Harden a tour of the urban farm’s flourishing greenhouse.

The center opened last spring, officially. And already, the site has received national recognition, winning an additional $500,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (dubbed the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program) to keep up the work we started (since Challenge Grant funding concludes this fall).

“Yee-haw,” exclaimed Lydia Martin, strategic initiatives manager for the Blue Cross foundation upon hearing of the new grant. “This is exactly what we wanted to happen. We wanted to help communities get focused on healthy living. But we knew we couldn’t be the sustainers long term. We were there to get things off the ground. And now, this new funding means the project we started will keep going and growing. This will live beyond us, which is what we hoped for from the beginning.”

Most impressive, Martin said, is that the recognition comes at a national level, with the visit from USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, who flew in from Washington, D.C. to tour the Growing Local Nola farm site.

“I just wanted to see first hand what’s being done out here,” Harden said, her own camera in hand as she snapped photos of the flourishing vegetable beds and a bustling chicken coop. “You know, I just spoke to a lady who lives across the street, Wendy, and she told me that she and her son have beds here that they work together. And I could just see the pride in her face. There’s nothing quite like the pride of growing your own food.”

Harden said she also understood the food access gap happening in cities like New Orleans — known for it’s amazing cuisine, yet also considered a food desert for many.

“A lot of that fine dining is geared toward tourists,” she said. “But for people who live in this city, it’s a very different thing trying to find affordable access to locally grown, healthy foods. That’s why I think the concept of urban farming is so important. It has the power to change everything.”

Harden added, “So many kids growing up in a city environment end up buying their foods from a corner vending store and not buying the healthiest things. So, for them to see the process, to see how real food is grown, that’s so important. And it’s a big part of why we’re here. We’re happy to be a part of this and a sponsor to it all.”

Rosie Agee, who lives several miles away in Harvey, La. turned out for the announcement. She’s been to the farm site many times and says the urban farming beds even inspired her own son to start four beds of his own in their backyard. Now, she helps tend to that garden and credits that work for  helping to lift her out of a depression that settled around her after her husband died a few years ago.

“I had depression and anxiety,” she said. “But taking care of that garden, and some chickens, too, I just started to feel better. Now I even go around handing out vegetables to my neighbors!”  (They actually call her “the kale lady,” because of the baked kale she enjoys making for friends and neighbors.)

Marianne Cufone, project leader for Growing LA and executive director for the Recirculating Farms Coalition, said the new funding will be especially important to continue the series of free classes she launched at the farm site last spring (including yoga, Zumba and cooking demos).

“Now, we’ll be able to continue to offer classes and wellness services that began in 2012 with our initial grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation,” Cufone said. “That funding laid the groundwork for us to build the farm and start these programs.”

The USDA grant was created to support developing farmers and ranchers, who have been dwindling in numbers in recent decades. As we’ve noted here in our blog pages many times before — if we want farm fresh food, we’ve got to start growing the growers before the farmers become endangered species.

Says Harden, “As new farmers and ranchers get started, they are really looking to their community for support. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program empowers these farmers and ranchers to bring innovative ideas to the table when it comes to addressing food security, creating economic enterprises, and building communities.”

Meanwhile, Cufone heartily thanked the secretary for stopping by, and noted the funds would go a long way toward making an impact in our state’s most famous city — known more for pitted asphalt streets and post-Katrina abandoned lots than lush growing gardens.

“There are so many innovative, amazing programs in food and farming in our community,” Cufone said. “And we look forward to working with all of them and the USDA to support our growers in being both ecologically and economically sustainable.” Cufone said.