Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Growth Potential: The Edible Schoolyard New Orleans

Posted By on Wed, Sep 23, 2009 at 11:57 PM

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Researching the current Gambit cover story on the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans at Samuel J. Green Charter School was like living out a garden-set reenactment of the Adam Sandler film Billy Madison. The educators behind the Alice Waters-adapted program — school president Tony Recasner, chef/teacher April Neujean, garden teacher Denise Richter and ESY NOLA director Donna Cavato — not only provided testimonials about its proven methodology in building a farm-to-table dining culture, but allowed me to view their living laboratory as it was intended to be seen: through the saucer-wide eyes of a child. Every day was a new grade, every grade a new application of this radically simple form of experiential education. Slipping behind the 10-foot stalks of purple okra growing in the urban oasis, photographer Cheryl Gerber and I saw first-graders gape at their first loofah gourds ("Do they come from an Oompah-Loofah?"); fourth-graders bury their noses in white-flowering ginger ("Best smell in the world") and chocolate mint ("It smells like gum!"); and sixth-graders harvest wild amaranth grain using the thresh-and-winnow methods of hunter-gatherer civilizations ("How do you get food off of this?"). Throughout the week, I will post the transcripts of my interviews with the principals of the program. Today: Neujean, chef/teacher at Green and the food and nutrition coordinator for FirstLine Schools.

Tell me about some of Green’s farm-to-table special programs.

One of our early goals was to get local food into the school, which is very challenging through the cafeteria. [Meet the Farmer] was an easy way to accomplish that goal. And it’s great because several times a year everybody in the school is eating fresh, seasonal produce, and loving it. It’s a great way to start teaching seasonality to the kids — why do we have watermelon in September but not January, things like that. Great way for the kids to see that what they’re doing here at school is happening in a much bigger way out there in the world. Ben Burkett, who’s a local farmer from Miss., he comes and brings his family.

[Another] one is the citrus tasting (for fifth-graders). We eat five different varieties of citrus that day. We do tasting parties with everything to get the kids to develop a vocabulary. Is it juicy, is it sweet, is it sour, things like that. That happens right before Christmas, school-wide citrus tasting. The fifth-graders will host that. We usually try to pick a class to be the host for the day. In the spring we do a strawberry tasting. We do different varieties of strawberries, including our own from the garden. They get to decide, is bigger better, things like that. Then we’ll tie all these special events into our classes, both on the kitchen and garden side. We teach the watermelon song, create other dishes with watermelon. There’s watermelon growing out in the garden, so they’ll incorporate that into it.

The kitchen layout is great, being able to see the garden out the window. Was it planned this way?

It was originally on the other side (of the school). It bothered me that the kids thought there was one type of food being cooked at one side of the school, and another type of food being served in the cafeteria. The inequities of that started to become really obvious. We decided at the end of my first year that when we put the kitchen in, it should be next to the cafeteria, it should be the heart of the school, and it should be one big space with one food message being sent. We have seating in here for 36 — 30 kids plus table leaders and volunteers. We’ve also built in space for observations. We can get observed by other school leaders, but also if we have visitors that want to come and observe classes, just like in the garden, we have a space for them. (Pointing at windows) Those were old doors before that were out of code and in bad shape. I really wanted to put a window in there because I wanted the kids to be able to stand in here and see the garden. We’re cooking food from the garden, and I wanted them to be able to feel the whole life cycle when they’re cooking.

What foods have been their favorite?

Things that I never thought were going to be popular have been really popular. Last year we grew a lot of turnips. People think that kids will only eat a certain kind of food, but I’m convinced and have seen time and time again — and it’s the Edible Schoolyard philosophy — if they grow it and they cook it, they will eat it. Turnips were incredibly popular, smashed turnips and turnip greens. All of our greens — we had a lot of kale in the garden last year, and we did sauteed kale with garlic. People would think kids would never eat kale, but they really liked it. Eggplant has been really popular. We have an eggplant caponata dish we serve at lots of special events, because the kids really love it. Kids love anything that’s really tactile. We’ve stuffed ravioli with everything from nasturtium to spinach we had growing in the garden. It seems kind of bizarre to them, but they love the bizarre.

What are the kids’ favorite activities?

They love harvesting. One of our best harvests last year was potatoes. Second-graders grew these beautiful little new potatoes, and they harvested them. We cooked those in our classroom last year. That was one of our best classes. They were digging for them like they were gold. They had no idea that potatoes came from the ground. Okra, eggplant and peppers are the biggest crops right now. Lots of basil. Those are things we’ll focus on in some early classes. Other seasonal items: apples a lot with first grade. There’s a great apple farmer in Mississippi that sells at the farmers market. We taste apples from different regions. The kids get apples in the cafeteria on a regular basis, but usually just Red Delicious. We want to show them there’s different varieties, and do they taste different, have different colors or textures? Next month, in October, second-graders go out to Perriloux Farm where they pick pumpkins. Again, promoting seasonality: Why do we eat certain things at certain times? We’ll do pumpkin soup. Older kids, they’re studying early civilizations, Aztecs, Incas, Mayans. So we’ll do lots of corn and squash, talk about native plants and how they’ve evolved through the years. Then of course we do lots of Louisiana dishes. Third-graders are studying Louisiana all year, so we’re going to do a lot of Cajun dishes, talk about the difference in natural resources between country and city.

Have you seen any evidence that the programs are changing the way they eat at home?

Anecdotally, we’ve already seen a big transformation, which is pretty amazing. We do a lot of special events programming. We have kids who have gone home, told their parents what we’re doing in the ESY, parents come in and ask me for recipes. I can’t keep up with it. We used to have to keep a stash of recipes on the bulletin board. Then we usually find out they’re actually cooking these things at home. We’ve heard stories of kids and parents doing grocery shopping together, kids introducing their parents to foods that the parents have never eaten. One of our families, the mom said they never had salad with their meals before; now they started eating salads. She’d never had carrots before, and now they buy carrots at the grocery store. The kids are teaching the parents. Last year we had our first family food nights, pilot program. Two nights last year, invited 10 families each night to come in. First we just played some food games. Then we had a dietician from Ochsner do a presentation. I was a little concerned about that, because I didn’t want the evening to feel preachy or judgmental at all. Our approach has never been good food/bad food. We really try to say, there’s a time and place for every type of food. But here’s some choices you can make, and if you get people to fall in love with fresh fruits and vegetables, they’re bound to make better choices. But we don’t ever want to make people feel bad about the choices they have been making. Families really responded.

How did last year’s Family Food Nights go?

We did just what we do with the kids: broke into three groups and cooked a four-course meal together. Kids were telling parents what the ingredients were, and they helped serve and clean up. It had a really good feel to it. We did some surveys at the end: what people thought, what they’d like to see different, if they’d like to see more of these. Every single survey said they loved the event and wanted to see more of them. So we’re doing four this year at Green, and for the first time we’re going to do two at Ashe. Trying to expand parent and family engagement. What we’ve found is there’s a huge demand out there, and the need just needs to be filled.

In what ways does the program different from the one in California?

Those kids have exposure to a lot of cooking and gardening programs throughout their lives, but they only have the Edible Schoolyard in middle school. We have a unique opportunity to see the kids from kindergarten through eighth grade here, and to make sure that the programming is really streamlined and follows their curriculum and development all the way through. We’ve had a lot of success with third through fifth grade as well, because they still have great natural curiosity, and they’re old enough to really start to ask great questions and comprehend a lot. After fifth grade it definitely takes a different turn with kids’ approach. But they really love to cook, so we’ve had great success with our cooking program with sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

How did you first go about reforming the lunch menu?

I was a part, both last year and this year, of menu selection with our food service provider. They brought me all the menus this year, and I expected there would be a lot of things we would say no to. Actually, we decided we’re going out for the USDA Healthier School Foods Challenge. We’re trying for the gold standard, which has never been achieved in Orleans Parish. So all of the menus had to reflect a certain standard to be eligible. How many fruits and vegetables, how often you serve them. There’s the basic USDA guidelines, but this takes things to a higher standard. Everyone should have a higher standard than the guidelines. (Laughs) We have a fresh fruit at every meal. Our kids get three servings of fresh fruit every day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack. We eliminated canned goods; there’s only two canned items we’ll accept. All vegetable items are either fresh or frozen. We serve a lot of whole grains: brown rice, whole wheat rolls baked in house, so the school smells like fresh baked bread. Still include a lot of local dishes: jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice once a week. No mystery meats, loaf meats. When I first started, those were common. No highly processed meats or cheeses. We serve baked chicken, barbecue chicken on the bone. Taco day with whole wheat flour tortillas. We still serve a lot of the same menu items you might see at other schools, but the way we serve them is a much healthier approach. We have a salad bar every day with six different vegetables. We added a vegan option with sunflower seeds and chickpeas. Only homemade salad dressings.

And how about breakfast?

At breakfast we added yogurt. When I first started here, people said, “Kids won’t eat brown rice. They won’t eat yogurt.” So we did pilot programs early on to get them used to those items. Would they eat a salad bar? We did a build-your-own salad bar class. We made yogurt granola parfaits. It was really foreign at first — most kids had never had yogurt. Now it’s pretty popular. I don’t think if we had just changed the food out from day one that we’d see the success rate we’ve seen. Brown rice, whole wheat spaghetti — we started cooking it in here, and they don’t even notice when it shows up on their plate.

How bad was the food at the start, really?

We were a pretty typical example when I started working here. We’re going into our third year. The food was very standard. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, but far from what it is now. All canned fruit, no fresh fruit and vegetables. When we first started composting, there was nothing we could compost in the cafeteria. That was a big light-bulb moment for us early on. Highly processed meats. Lots of smothered mystery meat, some sort of gravy. What we found is our staff really wanted to cook better food, but they weren’t being given the resources that they needed. We really wanted a salad bar early on, but we didn’t have any knives, we didn’t have any cutting boards. We didn’t have any refrigeration — we had nowhere to put it. We weren’t ready to ask for changes. I think a lot of schools want changes in the cafeteria, but they haven’t really assessed their own situation. That’s the biggest challenge. You can’t ask for things if you’re not ready to receive them. A lot of people want to villainize the food service provider, and there’s certainly a lot of change that needs to happen there — and with state and federal support — but I think one of the first things that needs to happen is that schools need to assess what they need, and find some resources to make some changes.

I notice you pay a lot of attention to detail and aesthetics.

Lots of bouquets, flowers on tables. Every time we create a beautiful place for the kids, we don’t see graffiti damage. The kids know they’re being taken care of. We really want to incorporate that into the cafeteria: a place that they can really feel proud of and love to come to. I hate the cafeteria that I remember from my childhood: the way it smells, the way it looks, the way kids are treated. Kids are constantly being pushed through an assembly line. It’s either really loud and noisy and chaotic, or completely dead silent, both of which feel awful. We talk a lot about appropriate tone and table manners. I’m really trying to build a dining culture. Once you change this, you see a change everywhere. It’s the forgotten piece. Every single child eats every single day. So if you can make that a part of their learning, you have this tremendous opportunity to reach kids consistently.

It’s amazing how much the older kids open up, once we start cooking and everyone has a job. They start talking about their lives, and they forget that they’re not supposed to share. You end up having amazing conversation with kids — they really relax in the kitchen, and they’re really proud of themselves when they accomplish something here.

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