“People are tired of being on medications. They are ready to understand that food is the foundation of health and wellness. We have an opportunity to live a full and whole life just by giving ourselves good food to eat. People often pay more attention to what gas they put in their car than what types of food they put in their bodies. We’re exploring what food is going to heal rather than hurt us. There has been more excitement about this than anything else we’ve done in the garden.”
– Jenga Mwendo
Jenga Mwendo returned to her native New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help revitalize her community. Since 2007, she has worked to strengthen the Lower Ninth Ward community in New Orleans. She founded the Backyard Gardeners Network (BGN), a nonprofit organization. Its mission is to sustain and strengthen the historically self-sufficient and deeply rooted community by using local food growing traditions as a means of building community, revitalizing the neighborhood, preserving cultural heritage and improving human health. The Backyard Gardeners Network currently manages two community gardens in the Lower 9th Ward: the Laurentine Ernst Community Garden and the Guerrilla Garden. It provides free community workshops, events and activities for all ages.
Jenga has worked with a number of organizations, including the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, where she led a Food Action Planning initiative. She is a graduate of the Southern University Agricultural Leadership Institute, a 2010 TogetherGreen Fellow, and a 2011-13 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Community Fellow. She has received many awards for her work, including the 2010 Cox Conserves Heroes, the 2011 Gambit 40 Under Forty and the 2014 EBONY Magazine “Hero Next Door.”
Q: Jenga, you are very interested in food as medicine. How does that idea play out into the BGN?
Jenga: What is really exciting about this work is that the Food as Medicine workshop is really taking off. People in our community are really gravitating to this. Our community has high rates of diet-related health problem, including diabetes and hypertension. People are tired of being on medications. They are ready to understand that food is the foundation of health and wellness. We have an opportunity to live a full and whole life just by giving ourselves good food to eat. People often pay more attention to what gas they put in their car than what types of food they put in their bodies. We’re exploring what food is going to heal rather than hurt us. There has been more excitement about this than anything else we’ve done in the garden.
People come every week. Health practitioners and other health professionals come to the garden and provide information about their topic. They have discussed sugar and sweeteners, mind-body wellness, cholesterol and more. Half of the workshop focuses on hands-on food preparation. So every week people are working together and getting practice handling and preparing fruits and vegetables. And about half of the recipes are raw. This season the recipes have been entirely been plant-based (these are the choices instructors made). A lot of participants have noted that they’ve lost weight. Their doctors are saying, “Keeping doing whatever it is you’re doing!” That’s how beneficial just shifting eating habits for nine weeks can be.
Every workshop has homework. One of the assignments was going an entire week without eating meat. One woman who did it decided she was going to keep on because it was easier than she thought it was going to be.
Every season we have a cooking contest to end our workshop series. We do it like Chopped. Everyone gets a surprise basket of ingredients; each cook has sixty minutes and it’s so much fun. The food was so good. We all love this event.
Q: Your work really focuses on food culture. How is that theme expressed in your cooking classes?
Jenga: Let’s take “soul food”, for instance. Soul food, which came out of African-American culture, didn’t necessarily come out of higher quality food, but it was better than what we eat now. Just a few generations ago, chemical pesticides didn’t exist. So what we ate was organic, even though we didn’t call it that. In general, our people couldn’t afford to eat meat every single day. Also, a lot of people were raising animals in their backyards. So when we did eat meat, it was usually fresh, organic and natural…. even though we didn’t call it that. Therefore, many of our meals were vegetarian. It is crucial for us to think about this. This is the type of thing we want to encourage.
Study after study has shown that meat – especially processed meat – is detrimental to our bodies. Most recently, even the World Health Organization is sounding the alarm. In our Food As Medicine workshops, we do not incorporate any processed items into our cooking; we use all whole ingredients. We need to get back to that. It doesn’t take a long time to prepare a meal…and the time it does take is an investment in our futures, in our health and in the wellness of our families. Studies support the value of proper breakfast and proper eating; for example, children have higher rates of obesity and depression if they don’t eat well.
Everything comes back to your food. Your food is your medicine: it can heal or hurt you.
Soul Food Junkies is a documentary that explores how our soul food traditions have changed along with the changes in our food system.
Q: Can we talk about health disparities, race and policy?
Jenga: In this country racism is intrinsically tied to classism. You can’t separate that. Go to any major city and go to the poor areas. Who is more likely to be there? People of color. Not every white person is rich, but a disproportionate number of the rich people in this country are white. As a society, we have to look at this. We have been dealing with this issue for generations and generations. My mother grew up during segregation. Civil rights legislation was passed, discrimination was outlawed and the fair housing act put in place. While policies changed certain aspects of life, they didn’t fix the fundamental problem, which is that this country was built on the oppression and exclusion of black people. The ripple effects of this are countless and will continue to arise because they are woven into the fabric of this society. Moving up from that foundation cannot be successful – unless you repair the damage. Reparations need to happen before we can have a national conversation.
Q: You’re enrolled in a program at Tulane in sustainable real estate development. How is this informing your work at BGN?
Jenga: I’m enrolled in a Master of Sustainable Real Estate Development program at Tulane University. I want to be a better advocate for my community and bring positive development to my neighborhood. I’m interested in how we can develop communities like the Lower Ninth Ward without displacing people and make the neighborhood better for all of us. I’m learning a lot about economics and capitalism and how the system works. Very recently, I’ve been thinking about how capitalism plays out in this country. It creates horrible situations of extreme disparity across all sectors. I remember playing Monopoly when I was very little. I hated it so much. Why would I want other people to go bankrupt and amass wealth, while everyone else suffers? But that’s what you need to do to win in Monopoly; that’s how you “win” in the capitalist system. Yet…even in Monopoly everyone starts out with the same amount of money…but that is not what happens in this country. Some were stripped of every single thing they had – even culture and identity – and were forced to create wealth for other people. People are not on the same footing…and it’s very hard to move up for that. It’s amazing what people of color have done despite that.
Q: What’s next for your organization?
Jenga: BGN wants to support other communities to do what we’re doing…to be able to utilize land in the community as a community-building tool. It’s a concept we’re still developing but are getting pretty good at. We’re always looking at the best ways to identify needs in our community and ensuring our organization is part of and supporting our community in every way, at every level. And it’s important to show that our community that’s doing this. I’m from the Lower Ninth and live here, as does our program coordinator and our document support person. And our session leaders are from this neighborhood or the larger black community in New Orleans.
We’re also focused on what and how…how you do something is as important as what you do. So it’s not just having a garden, but how you do it and who is involved. We’re also expanding the Food is Medicine piece. And we’re tying our program back to land development. This area has so much vacant and blighted property. How do you develop that to support the people who are already here?
It’s so easy to be a developer who is single-minded and decides what’s going to be done, but it’s critical to develop with the people around you. I’m working on a directed research project that’s examining collective property ownership and shared equity models…ways that people can work together to build wealth collectively and build neighborhoods collectively. I’m thinking more about practicalities…about what our decisions mean. Equal stake is important.
I was in San Francisco for the Urban Land Institute conference this fall and went on a tour of real estate development in Oakland. It’s similar to NOLA and other areas around the country. We see in these communities the patterns of what capitalism creates. And part of that is race-based gentrification in some of these communities.
We’re also equipping people to be activists…we’re moving in that direction. For us it’s really about community building; that’s where you start…with bringing people together and having people lead it. So that’s where you start.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your work?
Jenga: I hope they will check out our website. A lot of people have been contacting us recently. Several people found our information on the Color of Food website
Q: A final question…how do we as a society privilege this kind of work?
Jenga: It’s what I personally decided to do and it’s why I started this program. It’s not healthy to have the mindset that I had going into this work, which was, “I just want to do this work and that money is not important.” And I thought that I could work 24/7 all the time. That’s an unhealthy mindset. I think activists always need to be thinking of how we sustain our practice and make sure we’re also taking care of ourselves. People had told me, this but I wasn’t listening. Both things can be true – we can work for our communities and take good care of ourselves.
Enjoy this video about Jenga’s work. It was produced by 7th Empire Media.