Like many places in the Deep South, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is a food desert. In the years after Hurricane Katrina, there are no grocery stores selling low cost, fresh vegetables or unprocessed food. Residents who do not own a car must take a cab or a bus ride with transfers to buy food from the Walmart in Chalmette, Louisiana. But there is growing momentum to do something about this injustice. And a retired police chief from small-town Indiana is one of those tackling the problem.
David Young came to the Lower Ninth about six years ago to help build houses. He returned to Indiana, but it didn’t stick. Young returned to the Lower Ninth and has lived in New Orleans ever since. He built his first garden on the lot next to his home. It was a foreclosure that he purchased through the bank. Young soon realized that many of his neighbors had little access to fresh vegetables, so he expanded his operation. Today, he grows food and has planted orchards on 26 lots throughout the Lower Ninth. His nonprofit, Capstone, helps supply vegetables and fruit to those in need. That is, with the help of fellow nonprofits, volunteer labor, and some honey bees.
Many of the lots belong to lowernine.org, a local nonprofit which is dedicated the rebuilding and the long-term recovery of the Lower Ninth; it has turned the land over to Young until it is needed for building homes. The largest sublet is 12 contiguous lots on Lamanche Street — the “farm,” which houses most of the vegetable gardens. Young’s aim is food production, not model gardens, but the result is a huge improvement over the jungle-like growth that overwhelms many abandoned lots in the Lower Ninth. And from these lots Young has harvested and given away hundreds of pounds of food on an annual basis.
Obviously, Young has a hand in maintaining the garden plots, orchards, goats, and chickens that are part and parcel of Capstone’s activities. At the same time, his work is dependent of the labor of long-term volunteers, as well as short term volunteers from church groups, college campuses, or those who are just passing through New Orleans. In 2013, four guys from the UNH New Orleans class worked with Young to connect irrigation for a new orchard on North Roman Street. They worked all day breaking though a concrete walk, but the work and inspiration they drew from David Young energized them. As dirty and tired and blistered as they got, they were dying to go back to finish the job.
Oh, and the bees. Although I’m sure that Young had little notion that he would become an urban farmer, I bet he had even less an idea that he would become a bee wrangler. When he first started his gardens, Young noted a dearth of honey bees, so he installed a hive. Young’s bee-keeping skills were increasingly called upon as residents discovered hives of bees in abandoned houses or attics. When summoned, he suits up, looks to secure the queen, and generally moves the entire hive from where they are not wanted. As a result, Young now has over 20 hives going throughout the sites managed by Capstone.
And as Young looks to provide fresh food for the community, the bees are a powerful ally. The raw honey is highly sought after and its sale contributes mightily to finance Capstone’s community gardening. In fact, there is a waiting list whenever Young retrieves the bees’ sticky product. I’m on the second pint of Capstone honey and have put myself on the waiting list for the spring harvest. And believe me, it is well worth it.
For information about David Young, Capstone, and raw honey from the Lower Ninth Ward, check out Capstone’s website.