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Roots of Home: Vietnamese Migrants Rebuild in New Orleans

Oct. 11, 2017

Roots of Home: Vietnamese Migrants Rebuild in New Orleans

by Richard Adcock
photos by Ronnie Meyers

VEGGI Farmer's Cooperative looks like a well maintained, mid-size community garden. Rows of green and red lettuces, destined for salad mix, neatly push up against hoop houses being weeded for a new planting. But when I interview Khai Nguyễn, who has coordinated community relations and outside communications for the coop for seven years, I don't ask him about the salad mix or the planting. First, we talk about the BP oil spill.

From Vietnam to Versailles Arms

To understand the significance of VEGGI's project it helps to have some historical background on the people who spend the most time there: members of a deeply rooted Vietnamese community in New Orleans East.

The Vietnam war lasted twenty years by most estimates. When the Saigon Airlift evacuated tens of thousands of Vietnamese nationals from the south of Vietnam in April 1975, it was neither the beginning nor the end of a sustained wave of emigration. More than half of these refugees ended up in the U.S., largely in California and Texas, but a large group was resettled by Catholic Charities and clergy in New Orleans.

The newly resettled New Orleans Vietnamese community was geographically removed and relatively self-contained economically. In those initial decades, the Village de l'Est community was fairly insular, quietly building new lives and raising their families in the Versailles Arms Apartment, a public housing project. The Gulf of Mexico (many miles south) provided employment in fishing and shrimping, trades that were familiar to many of the migrants.

Then, in August 2005: Hurricane Katrina. The residents of Versailles left reluctantly and returned quickly; after six weeks, when they were given permission to "look and leave," they instead began to rebuild. Never expecting help from the outside, Versailles residents started to repair their own houses with help from friends and family. Local priest Father Viên Nguyễn returned to his church and resumed mass. It seemed this second displacement would at least be surmountable.

0735But what had been passive neglect from the city government turned into something more callous when the mayor's office exercised its emergency powers to dump toxic waste steps away from Versailles. What ensued is chronicled in the documentary A Village Called Versailles. The story comprises protests, legal challenges and an indignant Father Viên (who still holds mass at Mary Queen of Việt Nam, across the street from VEGGI) telling the world that his community is tired of being ignored. The protests worked and the mayor's office eventually relented.

All of this preceded VEGGI's founding. But it might help explain Khai's rather businesslike attitude toward the Deepwater Horizon spill, which was the final push to create VEGGI.

Receding Waters

"Yeah, we started pretty much right after the BP oil spill in 2010," he says. His slight Southern accent makes "oil" rhyme with "coal."

"Lots of people lost their jobs because of the oil spill."

The spill had such an impact on the everyday experience of anyone near the Gulf coast that its effects persist into the present, like the slurry of oil and dispersal chemicals still sitting on parts of the ocean floor. The spill is now part of the landscape.

For a nonlocal like me, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is hard to wrap my head around. It's difficult to overstate its scale. Almost a million seabirds died; NOAA, reporting on cetacean die-offs, found dolphins with oil-induced illnesses as far away as Florida. The impacts on the fishery harvest sector were initially profound. More than a third of federal waters in the entire Gulf were closed at the peak of the spill, and the delta was closed in the hardest hit spots. Some species like tuna were directly harmed; others fled what became massive dead zones of oil, chemicals, and bacterial metabolites. Fisherpeople—including the Vietnamese—lost their livelihoods overnight, and the ecosystem of the delta and the Gulf are still recovering. Khai is eager to discuss the positive side of the aftermath. The first response to the disaster was to try and find new income sources, at least temporarily, for those out of work. Khai works for Mary Queen of Việt Nam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC), which was the genesis of VEGGI. They worked to help community members turn backyard gardens into profitable farming operations. At first, VEGGI was a food hub: they collectivized and marketed produce for growers in the community. Not long after that, they built neighborhood greenhouses and began to train gardeners on aquaponic growing systems. "It started off pretty small," Khai says, a modesty belied by the long list of projects in VEGGI's seven-year history.  "A couple years after that, in 2013, we were able to get funding to get this farm going."

0795That would be the farm we're standing on as we talk. It occupies about as much space as the soccer field on the other side of the fence. "This piece of land actually didn't have any water for irrigation. We had to get that water line connected from the street. And it still doesn't have any electricity," he says, gesturing toward a hoop house.

"We're hoping to move to another site that's a little bit bigger, and incorporate some fruit trees and other things like that. There's a plan for a three- or four-acre farm on a site with a housing development."

This plan for a bigger, more diversified farming project, including kitchens for value-added food products, is part of the larger community development vision. These priorities reflect an interesting feature of VEGGI's continued success: it is staffed mostly by retirees.

At Home on the Farm

As fishing started to open back up in the Gulf in late 2010, working-age people trickled back to their former jobs or cut back their hours at the co-op. But the older folks stayed. Now, about a half dozen people, all nominally retired, spend four or five hours a day, six days a week at VEGGI. This isn't just a relationship of necessity: these community members have transofrmed VEGGI into a social center of their lives. While the co-op's revenue is driven by salad mix and tofu, its members hold their own farmers market here on Saturday mornings, selling anything and everything they grow at home.

0749"Yeah, it's pretty early, I'll say that," cautions Khai. "They get here at like 6 in the morning. Not a lot of people from outside the community come, but there are a few chefs sometimes. There's a lot of people selling vegetables from their home gardens that you usually can't get in grocery stores here. Shiso, lemon balm, water spinach, taro..." Here he's momentarily stymied, thinking of a plant that lacks an English translation.

"The farmers are responsible for its success. They're the experts. This couldn't operate without them."

VEGGI is remarkable for two reasons. First, it is a success story. The co-op financed its stated goal of providing workforce development, and it continues to expand. It's a working farm staffed entirely by community members.

Second, it has a central place in the community. For its members, at least, the co-op is a site to gather and share produce that they grew for themselves. If you wonder what it looks like to support both biological and cultural heritage, look no further than VEGGI Farmer's Cooperative.

Richard Adcock staff photo Richard Adcock is a native of central Iowa, where he came up working on community farms and gardens. In 2016 he graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Now based in Brooklyn, Richard cooks and writes about food at Slow Food's blog and richardadcock.com. His writing focuses on food system issues and the cultures of food and cooking.

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