With her hat pulled down to shield her from the Louisiana sun, 78-year-old Tham Nguyen walks carefully down the middle of a garden bed, squatting over to pull out weeds from between rows of Chinese mustard greens. Her husband, Thanh Nguyen, squats three beds away, digging small holes with a practiced hand to plant small lettuce starts, gently watering them afterwards.
“I do this because I like to stay occupied,” Tham (pictured above) says in Vietnamese. “I like to grow my own food, but it’s hard work,” especially now when the unusually heavy rains have damaged many of the crops. On some days, she is here from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., helping to tend to the cooperatively owned garden that produces the bulk of vegetables sold by the Village de L’Est Green Growers Initiative, known to most as VEGGI Farmers Cooperative.
The average American urban farmer is younger and whiter than Tham, but she’s representative of what an urban farmer in New Orleans East, just 15 miles from the historic French Quarter, looks like. From fleeing war to surviving major hurricanes and rebuilding after one of the worst man-made disasters in the U.S., the roughly 14,000-strong Vietnamese community of New Orleans East knows what it means to be resilient.
Formed after BP’s oil spill in 2010 decimated the shrimping industry, which employed a large number of Vietnamese-Americans, the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC) created VEGGI to provide an alternative form of employment for the community. With seven full members growing on two acres, as well as in their backyards, VEGGI now harvests 10,000 pounds of produce a year; they also grow flowers and make home-made tofu.
Before the pandemic, they sold to restaurants, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) around the city. Now, the restaurants and markets have closed, but the CSA membership has grown and VEGGI is looking at ways to get more of its produce to the local community.
The farm is not only a demonstration of their resilience as a community, but like many small urban farms around the country, it has helped makes them more resilient in the face of disasters. Now, the combination of climate change, coronavirus, and an aging community are testing them once again.
New Orleans East is one of two neighborhoods in the city that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and although the Black population in the district has seen a disproportionate number of cases, the fallout has also been felt among the Vietnamese population. Many of those in New Orleans East community who work in the hospitality industry have been laid off. Also, most families in the community depend on school lunches for children, so school closures have increased the burden on those families. For these reasons, VEGGI is currently trying to raise funds for the farmers to provide produce to the local community.
Tham was one of 120,000 Vietnamese people who fled to the U.S. after the Viet Cong claimed Saigon in 1975. Many arrivees were Catholic, and with the help of the local Roman Catholic church, a small community settled east of New Orleans, making their new home in the Versailles Arms Apartments, a public housing project located in between suburban sprawl and undeveloped floodplains. In a semi-tropical climate not unlike what they had grown up with, it’s not surprising that many would decide to grow their own food.
“Even before we started the co-op, people were growing their own food—that mentality has always been a part of our community,” says Khai Nguyen, who works at MQVN CDC, helping to administer the farm, as well as coordinating other economic development and environmental programs.
“The vegetables [we] are growing might not be available in a grocery store,” Khai says. “And for the community members here, it’s natural to grow food. It’s a form of resilience, and it’s also deeply cultural.”
That resiliency goes beyond just increasing food security and access to fresh produce. The co-op has provided a diverse form of income for its members, and has become a central way for the community to organize and engage with climate change.
A History of Rebuilding from Disasters
To get to New Orleans East, you pass rows of strip malls, undeveloped marshes, floodplains, and the Six Flags New Orleans amusement park that was abandoned after Katrina, still broadcasting the “closed for storm” sign at its entrance. It was in part the physical and political isolation that forced the community together in the first place. When, six weeks after the storm, authorities gave the residents permission to “look and leave,” many residents of New Orleans East stayed and started to rebuild, even though the city had made other plans for the area.
“After Katrina, the redevelopment authority didn’t realize there were people here, that people had returned much quicker than in other places in the city,” Khai says. In the storm’s immediate aftermath in 2005, the city originally drafted plans to revert much of New Orleans East to wetlands and create a landfill for storm debris.
But having already put in so much time in creating this community from scratch, people weren’t willing to leave their homes. “We were invisible in some ways before the storm, [and] that forced us to come together to fight this project and to advocate for ourselves,” Khai says.
Though the MQVN CDC was created in 2006 to address the immediate challenges following Katrina, founders saw an opportunity to address more systemic and long-term challenges as well. They originally envisioned a 28-acre farm, but it fell through because of zoning issues.
Less than five years later, however, the BP oil spill sent roughly 4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, destroying the fishing industry and particularly devastating the Vietnamese- American Village de L’Est community.
“People lost their jobs practically overnight,” Khai remembers. “But beyond jobs, it also affected people’s subsistence—people may not have been directly employed as a fisherman, but they were selling the products, and they were fishing and bartering.”
This time, the farming co-op became a reality. With grants from OXFAM and support from MQVN CDC, the community built neighborhood greenhouses and trained former fishermen to manage aquaponic growing systems, giving them an alternative form of both income and subistance food.
In 2013, 16 farmers banded together to formally create a farmers’ cooperative to sell the produce, fish, and tofu from their backyard gardens and aquaponic systems, with some farmers even reaching their pre-BP oil spill income levels.
Climate Change, Coronavirus, and an Aging Membership
While some members have since gone back to fishing, seven members continue to sell vegetables—including bok choi, rau lang, shiso, and ginger—herbs, tofu, and flowers grown in their backyards and on co-op land, using largely organic methods. The beds are elevated and mixed with compost and seedlings are grown first in boxes and then transplanted close together. They also use integrated pest management practices to control pests.
Beyond providing food for the community, the farm has become an informal gathering spot for the farmers, and a place for them to, quite literally, ground their own culture. The farm also partnered with local nursery and primary schools to offer field trips and educational experiences for children.
While there are talks of expanding VEGGI, one of the biggest problems is attracting younger people who are dedicated enough to stay in a place that otherwise offers few prospects; almost all the farmers that manage the co-op are elderly, and most of the young, educated community members have left to study or find employment. But some stay, and Khai remains hopeful that initiatives like the farm will be part of what entices more young, diverse community members to stay.
“We are lucky in that we have community members in the program who are very passionate and diligent—that really is key for the success of any program,” says Khai. “As long as the people in the program are able to stay dedicated and provide produce…it will keep on working.”
But in addition to the impacts of the coronavirus, the effects of climate change are often top-of-mind. Walking past a rain garden on the border of the farm, Khai mentions that because they are below sea level, flooding from any rainfall event affects the farm.
“In the last three years especially, [flooding] has become more frequent,” he says. “Part of the problem is that there is nowhere for the water to drain out.”
New Orleans is one of the rainiest cities in the country, with an average of 62 inches of rain each year. And since the 1950’s, New Orleans has seen a 62 percent increase in the number of heavy downpours, with average inches per rainfall event trending upwards. With levees surrounding much of the city, it essentially forms a shallow bowl, collecting water at the lowest parts.
VEGGI, meanwhile, sits at 0 feet above sea level, one of the lowest parts of the city. It is also considered one of the areas in New Orleans most vulnerable to climate change—not just because of its geographic location, but also its lower socio-economic status and relative isolation.
In recent months, Khai has helped lead community meetings that have introduced long-term projections of water levels in the community. Sea level rise is predicted to reach almost two feet by 2050 in New Orleans, and Khai knows that the farm will see increased flooding. But as a small organization with limited funding, Khai recognizes there is only so much they can do alone.
Khai now serves as a representative of MQVN CDC in South East Louisiana VOICE, a coalition of community-based and environmental organizations. He is advocating for more community inclusion in state environmental programs and for more services, like translators, to let the community have a direct say in what kind of projects get prioritized and how they get implemented.
“Environmental concerns have always been important to the community, so of course with climate change, people are concerned,” he says. “We have always had to rebuild—we had to fight a landfill that was being placed in our backyard, and more recently, the community was fighting a new gas plant.”
The community is facing the double threat of climate change and the coronavirus much the same way, Khai says. They want to know what they are up against so they can do what they have always done: plan, adapt, and build more resilient systems.