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Growing Jobs in Their Backyards

Small vegetable patches have long flourished in the backyards of Village de l’Est, a predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood in far eastern New Orleans, where many residents grow greens and herbs for their traditional home cooking. More recently, however, these gardens and new communal farm plots have been fused into a collaborative network that’s supplying more and more New Orleans restaurants and providing new job prospects for neighbors.

The network is called the Village de l’Est Green Growers Initiative Farmer’s Cooperative, or VEGGI,  and it came about in response to the BP oil spill, which had an immediate impact on many local families here who earn their living through commercial fishing.

“After the oil spill a lot of folks found themselves unemployed for the foreseeable future,” says VEGGI program coordinator Daniel Nguyen. “We found out fisher people were growing a surplus of vegetables in their backyard plots, and we figured we could connect that with a farmers market in the city.”

From that simple idea, however, the cooperative has grown into its own enterprise. With support from the neighborhood’s MQVN Community Development Corp., VEGGI helped household gardeners and erstwhile fishermen build a supply chain that goes directly from their neighborhood into the kitchens of some of the city’s finest restaurants. The growers produce their crops without chemical pesticides, following instead traditional farming techniques as well as aquaponics, which cultivates plants in water enriched naturally by marine life. It is hands-on, outdoor work, which suits the new farmers just fine.

“This was a way to address workforce development without going 360 degrees on them, like one day you’re on a fishing boat and the next you have a desk job,” says Nguyen.

VEGGI trains residents, helps them get started with micro-grants and handles distribution and marketing.

“We have many growers but one brand so when we go out to buyers they know where it’s coming from,” Nguyen says.
While the BP spill spurred this effort, VEGGI’s products made a timely entry to the marketplace, coming along as more chefs and restaurants have been searching for locally produced foods to feature on their menus.

“There was a lot more demand than we anticipated,” says Nguyen. “Chefs now refer us to other chefs and that’s one way we keep growing.”

For information about VEGGI, go to VeggiFarmCoop.com.

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