Growing food to feed the hungry makes a lot of sense, but it's one of the hardest things to do in the American urban landscape.

For the past two years, Kathia Duran has been trying to grow a tiny public garden in the heart of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods to feed the many thousands of low-income residents in her Latino community.

The will and desire to tend the land for harvest is alive and strong among the Latinos - most of whom have been adrift without reliable work during the recession - but the challenges to move forward are tremendous.

Farming in the South remains tainted with racist overtones: It is still largely seen as work done by slaves, so support from the African-American communities of New Orleans is not forthcoming, Duran said. Wealthier communities don't fully understand the need of urban farms, and securing more land to harvest within neighborhoods is more than difficult. It feels almost impossible.

So when out of the blue Duran's Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana received an e-mail from Missoula's Garden City Harvest and PEAS Farm suggesting an agricultural and educational exchange, Duran was overcome with hope.

"I couldn't believe it," Duran said. "I don't know how they found us, but they are what we've been looking for to help us."

This week, Duran is digging deep in Missoula at the Rattlesnake PEAS farm, gleaning all she can about how to grow a community garden and how to weed through city hall politics to plant seeds of change and secure land leases.

"Montana has taken me under its wings, bought me my airplane ticket to get me here and become my mentors," Duran said. "What is here at this farm is a wonderful model and I see already so many things I want to take back to New Orleans and take to our community."

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Josh Slotnick is thrilled the exchange is under way and the Rattlesnake farm director hopes it becomes a lasting relationship.

In the fall, many of the Missoula farm hands and Slotnick will transplant their knowledge and work to New Orleans, working with and learning from the Latino Farmers Cooperative.

"Missoula and New Orleans couldn't be more different communities," Slotnick said. "But the whole idea of this is that people from different cultures and backgrounds could find common ground working together to tend the land and grow food."

The Internet connected the two agricultural interests and the Missoula e-mail set the mentorship in motion. When Duran accepted the exchange, members of Garden City Harvest's Board of Directors donated frequent flier miles to bring Duran to Missoula.

Duran arrived on Monday with Claire Menck, a scholar and expert on community agriculture, who is helping Duran's project and documenting the growth, challenges and life of the Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana.

Menck joined the cause because she sees the need in New Orleans every day.

"We have lots of food deserts in the city where grocery stores are four to five miles away from neighborhoods," Menck said. "It really is a class issue when it comes to who has access to food and that has only increased since Katrina."

"Many of the wealthier communities, which were hit hard by the hurricane, have been rebuilt and have more restaurants and food resources than before," she said. "Yet the poorer communities have fewer options."

Faced with so many challenges, Duran said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to find help beyond her city.

"I am so excited to be here," Duran said. "I told Josh and everyone here I wouldn't come unless they would be an open book and that they would have to be really comfortable to tell me their secrets that will help us grow.

"And they agreed."

Slotnick said they did agree to share all, and they are happy to do so.

"We want to see the Latino Farmers Cooperative be successful," Slotnick said. "When you feed the hungry and give low-income people access to nutritious food, we all benefit."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

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