It didn’t look like much of a school, with the barbed wire fencing and modular classrooms crowding the yard. But FirstLine Charter Schools founders saw in it the potential to take a failing program and turn children’s lives around. But ten days after opening their doors in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck, bringing five feet of flood waters to smother the school grounds.
Out of destruction an ambitious recovery formed, and with the help of dedicated volunteers and a bit of star power, the humble grounds of Samuel J. Green school transformed into Edible Schoolyard New Orleans. Sowing, growing, harvesting and cooking are part of the curriculum served up at this innovative k-8 school.
“The garden is such a visible sign of positive change,” said Kelly Regan, Community Partnerships, Volunteer, and Family Coordinator. “We made that promise, for the kids’ grades to come up and for them to be happy. We wanted the school to be the heartbeat of the community.”
In the aftermath of Katrina, many sought ways to help, including Chef Alice Waters of Berkeley, California, founder of Chez Panisse Foundation the organization devoted to promoting Edible Schoolyards. Networking with local food legends such as Emeril Lagasse and New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees, Waters pulled in funding and support for the project and in 2006, the garden opened.
Where modular classrooms stood, the one-third acre garden grows, flush with late season harvest of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and garlic. Yearly, 3,000 pounds of produce is harvested, going into the huge teaching kitchen for children to learn the finer points of food preparation, table manners, and teamwork. Large windows of the kitchen overlook the garden to reinforce where the bounty comes from.
“When we started there wasn’t one piece of fresh fruit or vegetable given to the kids by the contracted food supplier. Here, 98-percent of the kids are from families at or below poverty income, but they were dumping their food in the garbage can even though they were hungry,” said Alison Heston, School Food Outreach Coordinator. Now they get three servings of fruit per day, plus whole grains and all the food is made from scratch.
Says Regan, “It’s not just about changing the food by putting something new in front of them. We have them involved with growing so they’re interested in eating their food.”
In total, the 490 students receive 24 lessons over the course of the school year, where chef April Neujean leads the class by holding up the ingredients, talking of them, then letting the kids touch and smell the food before working on the day’s dish. Teams work together to chop and cook the meal.
To solidify community ties, every other month the school hosts an open garden day, where the neighborhood is invited to stop by for tips on gardening or harvest. In off months, youth leadership program participants learn small business skills by selling the produce at the Farmer’s Market.
Sustaining the garden takes investment by community leaders in order to fund two full time staff and support the 20 to 25 volunteers that help in the garden each week. With competition for dollars fierce, the school thought creatively and garnered support from a pantheon of food stars such as the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, Ruth U. Fertel Foundation (of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse), Slow Food New Orleans, Crescent City Farmer’s Market, and the Culinary Corps.
Their vision paid off: student performance has improved greatly, moving the school from one of the city’s worst performing to one-star status.
- Ann Cooper: Bad Food Is Making Our Kids Sick (and How to Take Charge) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Emeril’s New Show Dishes Up Great Ideas This Fall (celebritytreat.com)