In the main section of the Lederer Youth Garden in northeast Washington D.C., run by the DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), a staff member pulled up a weed from the rows of okra, peppers, and watermelons. “This will sell for 3 dollars a bunch at the farmers market,” he said. “But here in our garden, we consider it a weed.”
Looking on, Yao Afantchao, who works with the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) cooperative extension service and its agricultural experimentation service, smiled and shook his head. On just the other side of the Lederer Garden’s green house, the small demonstration garden he manages boasts an entire section dedicated to growing this weed. It’s called water leaf and it is a common food crop Yao’s home country, Togo, in West Africa.
Through his work with UDC, Yao is helping to introduce farmers in the greater DC area to water leaf and other plants like it, as well as providing the local immigrant community with a source for all the vegetables they miss from home.
When he first moved to the United States, Yao says, it was hard to find the food ingredients he was used to cooking with back home. “It was hard to find the ingredients at all,” he said, “let alone fresh ingredients.” Yao realized that he couldn’t be the only immigrant in DC looking for a taste of home. And local DC farmers, he believed, could benefit from serving this untapped market for indigenous African vegetables.
At first, Yao says, it was an uphill battle to convince farmers to grow these crops. But after the tobacco buyout in 2004, many former tobacco farmers in southern Maryland were looking for a new cash crop. Yao was confident that some of the best new cash crops were ones from his home—ones that most of the tobacco farmers had never heard about before. Now, these same farmers can’t seem to grow enough of vegetables with names like Sawa Sawa, Gilo, garden eggs, and Gboma to sell at local farmers markets and ethnic grocery stores.
Another benefit of these “new crops,” as Yao calls them, is that they bring together groups of people who would otherwise never interact. One farm he works with sells pick your OWN vegetables and families from all over the world who have moved to the area come to pick food together. It’s a learning experience for everyone. Yao was surprised to learn that some of his favorite foods from his home are also the favorite foods of Egyptians and Liberians, and they all have learned new ways to prepare those foods from each other. One farmer in Maryland was surprised to learn that with his new customers he can make more selling the leaves of sweet potatoes than the tubers. And when families come to pick vegetables from the farm, children learn to appreciate “fresh foods and healthy eating habits,” says Yao.
“It’s really about bringing communities together,” says Yao. “That is the real value in growing and sharing these crops.”