When Ashley Webb moved her family from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 2017, it was a huge culture shock. Not only was the city very different, but their new neighborhood was considered a food desert, meaning there is no immediate access to fresh produce. Wanting to change this, Ashley and her husband started a community garden—and it blossomed into a much bigger project than they ever imagined.
In the summer of 2017, Ashley Webb had no idea what she was getting into when she, her husband Andy, and their young children packed up their lives in Los Angeles and moved halfway across the country to the 9th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. The reason for the move was to be closer to family, but she knew there would be many parts of Los Angeles that she’d miss.
Not long after their arrival, Ashley and her family quickly fell in love with their new life in Louisiana. But just as quickly, Ashley noticed that there were some major differences between her new neighborhood in the 9th Ward and her former one in Los Angeles. Most notably, there seemed to be a lack of grocery stores in her community, particularly those that carried affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.
“When we lived in Los Angeles, we were literally around the corner from a grocery chain called Ralph’s. And when we moved here… the fact that we had to completely leave the neighborhood to find a grocery store was just kind of nuts in my head.”
Curious about why this was, Ashley began talking to some of her neighbors. Through her conversations with them, she learned that there used to be a small grocery store in the 9th Ward, but it flooded when Hurricane Katrina leveled the region in 2005. It had been boarded up ever since, just like so many other parts of the 9th Ward.
Saddened to hear about the devastation that wiped out her neighborhood’s only grocery store so long ago, Ashley knew she had to take action and help her community regain access to fresh, affordable produce. Luckily, she knew just how to do it.
Back in Los Angeles, she and Andy had been inspired by Ron Finley and his fight for “guerilla gardening” in the city-owned green spaces between the streets and sidewalks. It didn’t take long for their passion for gardening to blossom; they started growing crops of their own on curbside plots and empty lots throughout their neighborhood.
“It was so fun to take an abandoned plot and provide fresh food to friends and neighbors instead of having a vacant and overgrown area.”
Ashley wanted to bring that same energy to the streets of the 9th Ward, but on a much larger scale. Shortly after their move, Ashley and Andy decided to purchase a vacant lot down the block from their home and transform it into a vibrant community garden. Barcelo Gardens, she envisioned, would be a space where she could teach her neighbors how to grow their own food and then share it with the rest of the community.
However, her vision didn’t exactly go according to plan.
“We had wanted to be able to invite people to garden in this space with us. But what we found is, by that garden, [there] are a lot of older people, and they weren’t very interested… They were just kind of like, ‘Oh, you grow and you can give it to us.’”
But all of that changed in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the US. All of the sudden, there was an even bigger grocery shortage in the 9th Ward and a more desperate need for fresh, affordable food. Not to mention, small local businesses—particularly Black-owned businesses—were struggling due to state restrictions and a lack of tourism.
Ashley started to wonder what she could do to help the people in her community who were hurting the most. And then, per a neighbor’s suggestion, she landed on a perfect solution. Ashley decided to turn the community garden into a farmers’ market, a space where Black farmers and vendors could network and sell their products directly to the residents in the 9th Ward. And in no time, the idea took off.
Today, the Barcelo Gardens Farmers’ Market is a hustling, bustling community space where Black growers, cooks, and makers alike can come together to feed the bellies and souls of countless residents living in the 9th Ward. What’s more, the space offers plenty of educational opportunities:
“[Andy will] walk people around the garden and, you know, show them what we’re planting. We try to show them the new foods. Recently, we started cooking demonstrations because the biggest thing people would ask is ‘I don’t know how to cook this.’ You know, they want to eat their vegetables… [so we] show them how they can cook different items so we can promote the vegetable eating part, not just the hot foods part.”
The Barcelo Gardens Farmers’ Market has been such a hit that Ashley now wants to expand the operation into a more permanent venue (the current lot’s zoning laws limit development possibilities on the land). Earlier this year, Ashley secured a space just a few blocks down the road from the market’s current location. And to help cover the rest of the startup costs, she started a GoFundMe. With the money raised from her fundraiser, she hopes to build out the space, furnishing it with running water, electricity, fencing, storage, and vendor stalls.
Looking to the future, Ashley is excited to one day stand at the entrance to her community’s new space and witness her fellow New Orleanians connecting with one another. But until then, she can’t help but reflect on her journey.
“Even things, you know, that seem little—like gardening—it can make a huge difference… We just decided to do this thing. And that little project turned into something bigger.”
Ashley continued, “And if you kind of get into those roadblocks, you know, maybe look around and see what that block is. [Ask yourself if] you can go around in a different way, and still kind of have your ultimate goal, which is providing food for the community.”