Planting, watering, pruning and harvesting crops in his dad’s garden taught J. Wesley Daniels Jr. about life — how to be patient, notice growth, remove weeds and find joy in life’s cyclical ups and downs. And he ate from the harvest.

As CEO of the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority, Daniels said he considered that gardening might benefit residents of the group’s affordable housing complexes in the same way.

Daniels started community fruit and vegetable gardens at housing authority properties across the parish to combat food insecurity and mental health issues in 2020. The organization partnered with Baton Roots, a community farming program, to set up more than 80 plant beds at 11 housing communities.

“We want the gardens to promote health and wellness,” he said. “They can improve the mental and physical well-being of our residents. The harvests provide sustenance, and there’s a cathartic, peaceful, meditative experience of tending the gardens.”

More than 80 gardening plots coming to affordable housing families, bringing fresh produce, new skills

The “Harmony Gardens” produced more than 400 pounds of vegetables in 2021, including cabbage, collard greens, lettuce and mustard greens during the spring and cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peppers and tomatoes in the summer.

When Kathy Victorian, a marketing manager with healthcare provider Healthy Blue, heard about the plentiful harvest, she said she had one question: “What happens with the leftovers?”

“When there’s this much goodness coming from the gardens, we didn’t want any to be thrown away,” Victorian said. “Especially in a city where food insecurity is a problem.”

Healthy Blue donated $40,000 worth of commercial, LED-lit produce refrigerators to the housing authority, one for each of its 11 communities.

“These ‘freegerators’ preserve the shelf life of our crops and enhance distribution of fresh and nourishing vegetables,” Daniels said.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

The housing authority unveiled one of its new ice boxes at its Kelly Terrace residence Tuesday. The cooler, sporting the Healthy Blue logo, is filled with fresh greens for the community’s consumption.

“We have 100 families living at Kelly Terrace,” Daniels said. “They can learn how to plant, tend, harvest and cook the vegetables at workshops here. It’s priceless, and extremely rewarding, to teach a man to fish instead of buying fish from a store.”

Families at each site can pick their own fresh vegetables during workshops that educate them about growing, harvesting and preparing seasonal vegetables. The refrigerators will help keep the produce fresh.

Gladys Young, a resident who tends the garden, said picking vegetables from the garden is easier, cheaper and healthier than buying days-old produce from a grocery store.

“Once more of the residents realize how much easier it is to come out and get food from the garden, I think they’ll want to participate in the work of it,” Young said. “People ask me what’s in the garden all the time. I tell ‘em to come out here and I’ll show ‘em what’s there and how to pick and cook it.”

The gardening project is a wellness program for housing authority communities that includes building vegetable plots and then teaching people how to tend to them. The project has been directed by the Walls Project Urban Farm on Winbourne, a BREC program.

“If you’re able to grow your own food, you can sustain your family,” Daniels said. “It’s a skill we hope to cultivate throughout our communities, from our youngest residents to our oldest.”

Baton Roots developed the gardening initiative initially with 44 beds at six housing communities: Ardenwood, Capitol Square, Kelly Terrace, Monte Sano, Sharlo Terrace and Turner Plaza. A second phase targeted the Clarksdale Apartments, River South II, Scotland Villa, Wood Plaza and Zion Terrace with an additional 40 garden beds.

Baton Roots constructed the beds, filled beds with soil, planted seedlings and installed irrigation systems. Eight of the 11 refrigerators recently purchased have been installed at the first set of gardens.


Email Caroline Savoie at CSavoie@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter at @CarolineSavo.