Jonshell Johnson of Grow Dat and a student

Red Nose Day

Bringing Health and Joy to Kids Through Urban Farming

Daryl Chen explores a day in the life of Jonshell Johnson of Grow Dat, one of the many Red Nose Day heroes bringing health, joy, and learning to children!

May 22, 2024

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Daryl Chen explores a day in the life of Jonshell Johnson of Grow Dat, one of the many Red Nose Day heroes bringing health, joy, and learning to children!

As a little girl, Jonshell Johnson had a vision of herself “running through corn fields, surrounding myself with a whole bunch of tall plants.” It’s not exactly what you’d expect for a kid growing up in New Orleans, where — as in most US cities — concrete and buildings covered most of the ground.   

Today, though, she’s living that vision — although the mighty plants are okra, not corn — at Grow Dat Youth Farm, a seven-acre unfenced, pesticide-free agricultural and educational space in New Orleans’ City Park. As the education coordinator at Grow Dat, she oversees learning tours and field trips for visitors of all ages — including nearly 1,500 schoolkids a year. “Our biggest motivator in hosting these trips is exposure. We’re the only urban farm that caters to youth in the entire city of New Orleans, so there are a lot of kids who do not see farms or gardening spaces,” she says. “I love to help them really be able to connect what they eat at home to how it looks naturally and how it grows and the hard work that goes into it.” 

Grow Dat, a Red Nose Day funded organization, took root in City Park in 2011 to address issues like food insecurity, limited access to fresh food, and a lack of jobs and leadership training for young people. A 2015 study revealed that 36.9% of New Orleans’ young people lived below the national poverty line. Additionally, 23% of New Orleans residents, including many youth, experience food insecurity, leading to hunger and limited access to fresh foods. Since its opening, 450,000 pounds of food have been harvested at Grow Dat farm, cultivated by the 620+ paid youth farmers who’ve been employed by Grow Dat. Every year, three-quarters of the produce is sold to the public through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program (SNAP recipients get a 50% discount), while the rest is distributed to the young farmers to take home to their families.

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Playful curiosity: On this day, Jonshell is teaching a class of fourth graders from one of the city’s schools about birds and bugs. “When we look at a field, we just see a lot of green,” she says. “But when we look closely at the plants, we’ll see that some plants have vertical veins, some have parallel veins, some plants are hairy, some are smooth. To notice how different each and every plant is allows us to develop different relationships with those plants.” - Photo: Katie Sikora
Joy blossoms: After five years at Grow Dat, Jonshell knows all too well the long weeks it takes for a single tomato or a kale leaf to reach the point of harvest. But in her work with school kids, she’s learned that unlike plants, a student’s hesitation, doubt, and fear can blossom into wonder, smiles, and excitement instantly. “One of the most moving comments that I got from one of the kids was: ‘I am usually scared of insects but I'm not as scared because my friend picked up a roly-poly bug and showed it to me.’ And I've had other kids come up to me at the end of the tour, hug me, and embrace me, saying, ‘This was so fun.’” - Photo: Katie Sikora
Growing empowered: Besides the learning tours, Jonshell also oversees the SEED Project, which gives alumni who’ve gone through the farm’s leadership programs the opportunity to pursue their own agriculture-related projects. Jonshell says, “One of my young people just loves pickles, so through her research, she found that it was easy to make and ferment stuff. These were two fermentation experiments of hers: kimchi and pickles.” - Photo: Katie Sikora
Farming is medicine  — that’s something Jonshell believes on many levels. She sees the thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits at Grow Dat going to nourish and feed people who’d otherwise eat the fast foods and processed foods that are more cheaply and readily available in their neighborhoods, and how it’s helping combat conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure that are common among the Black people in her hometown. - Photo: Katie Sikora
Nature heals - She’s also very aware that the land Grow Dat occupies was once a plantation. “The history is heavy. It’s also a beautiful space — there’s alligators, turtles, birds, plants, things you normally don’t see in the city.” Part of the healing in farming is that the staff at Grow Dat talk openly about the history of the land and that agricultural labor can be reclaimed as work that can empower and support those who do it. She adds, “We can’t make a just future without looking at the past.” - Photo: Katie Sikora  

Jonshell is the mother of two boys, ages two and six, and they enjoy running through Grow Dat’s wide, open spaces. She knows her children will grow up feeling welcome there and eating the fresh food she brings home from the farm, an experience she wants to bring to more people in the city she loves. 

Jonshell says, “I'm motivated to be a part of a future where we do have more satsuma trees growing, so that people can just go outside and pick an orange. I want to see a future where there's more mint, more rosemary growing everywhere, more elderberries, more beautyberries. So that there's just more food everywhere.” 

Project Spotlight

Red Nose Day in School is a free educational program designed to teach young students about the impacts of poverty on children, foster empathy building, and celebrate acts of kindness in the classroom and beyond. This year-round program includes lesson plans, routines and videos to help students practice core reading and writing skills while also helping them realize their power to make a difference for others. Learn more.