Photos by Cheryl Gerber
Weather forecasts call for a 70 percent chance of rain on this dreary mid-September Saturday, but the mood inside Samuel J. Green Charter School couldn't be sunnier. From the cafeteria stage, Kelly Regan welcomes a few dozen visitors — clustered around circular tables set with freshly cut flowers and sweating pitchers of iced water — to the elementary/middle school's first Open Garden Day of fall.
"It's a time when our garden opens up to the community," the host says into a superfluous microphone. "These are really special days. ... If you're a member of Junior League New Orleans, will you please say, 'Oh, yeah!'"
Each call is matched by an enthusiastic response from a different faction: the Rethinkers, a group of representatives ages 8 to 16 from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools; staffers, parents and students at Green; and, up front and loudest of all, the Junior Leaguers, a vocal majority of the small crowd. "Y'all have always been such a wonderful partner to us," Regan says. "Y'all are getting down in the dirt. It's not just about saying, 'We're your partner'; it's hand-in-hand, we're going to do this together."
The "down in the dirt" message is not a metaphor. Today, along with the New Orleans launch of Slow Food USA's national campaign to reform the Child Nutrition Act, Green is showcasing two key elements of a curriculum that is changing the way its children learn to eat. The first is a gleaming, Food Network-worthy Edible Teaching Kitchen, constructed over the summer with donated equipment and funds from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The second is the Edible Garden, an ongoing project started in 2007 that has slowly but steadily transformed the southeast corner of the Uptown campus into an urban oasis, now a living laboratory teeming with flora, fauna, harvestable seasonal produce and engaged students bearing soiled hands and saucer-wide eyes.
Together, the twin programs make up the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, one of only two such integrated, garden-to-table public school curricula in the United States. The original Edible Schoolyard, at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., is the manifestation of a philosophy ushered in by chef, food maven and former Montessori teacher Alice Waters, whose Chez Panisse Foundation — working with a task force of area cultural advocates, culinary professionals, urban gardeners and education administrators — also midwived the expansion to Green.
Overseeing the project is Dr. Tony Recasner, president of FirstLine Schools, which has run Green and the nearby elementary Arthur Ashe Charter School since they reopened after Hurricane Katrina. He points to a perfect storm of time, talent and funding that in four semesters turned a blighted, 20-years-failing institution into a community hub and a model organization for future Edible Schoolyard projects, both in Louisiana and around the country.
"The folks on our task force are gardeners and chefs who are committed to the whole-food, farm-table concept, sustainable regional farming," Recasner says. "They were already involved in organized efforts like Market Umbrella, Slow Food, Town Gardeners. We didn't have to build every organization from scratch; it's individuals who represent organizations that have been pursuing these ideals for a long time. We got lucky with Alice in that she becomes the perfect head of the table, so to speak, and really provides the catalyst to build the coalition around this effort."
On this day, the effort consists of some seasonal housekeeping. As is the norm at Green, several groups are organizing into age-related activities: one to transplant maple trees and lay a new brick walkway; another to clear raised beds and mulch a soupy front entrance; a third to clean the wetlands area, trellis jasmine and weed the perimeter; and a fourth to make garden signs, create seed packets and ponder butterfly life cycles.
Bursting out the back door toward their areas of choice, the students, parents, staff and volunteers are met by a welcome surprise: Despite encroaching storm clouds, there is a halo of blue sky above the garden. "We've been ridiculously lucky," says April Neujean, chef/teacher at Green and the food and nutrition coordinator for FirstLine. "It sometimes rains at the end, but we've never been rained out of Open Garden Day."
In February 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned a two-year study from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies on the nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program (established in 1946) and the School Breakfast Program (added via the Child Nutrition Act in 1966). Today, the two programs serve free or reduced-price meals to roughly 30 million schoolchildren nationwide. Of the 471 students attending Green, 98 percent are eligible for the programs.
The results of the IOM study are expected in October, but to Donna Cavato, director of the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, stating the obvious is no spoiler. "It's really the low threshold of what the USDA sets for a nutritional meal — that you could have no fresh fruit or vegetable, all processed, no real food, and it could still be meeting the guidelines," she says. "That's one thing that absolutely has to change."
Cavato estimates that 80 percent of her students' daily caloric intake comes from Green's cafeteria: "If you have breakfast, lunch and two snack programs, we're the main food source."
Before there were Viking ranges indoors and a cornucopia growing out back, Recasner, Cavato and Neujean set out to change the culture of eating at Green. The first to go were mystery meats, canned goods and sugary cereals. Working with food service provider Sodexo, they made proteins a staple at breakfast, replaced simple carbohydrates with whole grain alternatives, and added fresh fruits and vegetables to every meal.
"We were a pretty typical example when I started working here," says Neujean, also entering her third year. "The food was very standard. It wasn't the worst I've ever seen, but far from what it is now. ... 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."
It wasn't as simple as flipping a switch. With minimal pantry and refrigeration space, the old Green kitchen was ill-equipped to handle an influx of spoilable food. That was the biggest challenge, Neujean says. "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, 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."
But a second obstacle also loomed: Healthier ingredients are a wash if they aren't consumed. "Once we say we want them, and they commit to preparing and serving it, then we all have to demonstrate that the kids are willing to eat it," Recasner says. "There's some accountability on that side."
Such is the beauty of the Edible Schoolyard's fundamental tenet, proved infallible by a dozen years of testing: If children are taught to grow it and cook it, they will eat it.
The Edible Garden at Green produces a ton of food. Literally, says lead garden teacher Denise Richter: "Last year, from the beginning of the school year to this school year — August to August — was something like 2,600 pounds. And it's growing more and more and more. As our soil is maturing, as our garden is maturing, we're just getting more and more harvest."
Richter's garden classes comprise more than just weeding, planting and watering; rather, they are individually tailored for each grade level. For first-graders, it's a full sensory tour, geared toward the sights, feels, smells and tastes of different leaves and fruits. "What are those?" a boy on his first trip through the garden asks, pointing at gourds on vines overhead. "Loofahs," Richter answers, which makes him wonder: "Do they come from an Oompa-Loofah?"
Fourth-graders learn about quantitative data by making bar graphs out of edible plant parts, measuring the waterline in the wetlands (16 cm) or checking the temperature in the greenhouse (39 degrees Celsius). Qualitative data is welcomed, too, and typically requires less solicitation. "We can eat this?" says one student, incredulous of a grove of basil. "Ooh, momma!" exclaims another after sampling a green onion. "Nasty."
Upper-level classes are perhaps the greatest opportunity for Richter's applied techniques. In one sixth-grade lesson on hunter-gatherer lifestyles, wild amaranth grain is being threshed and winnowed using practices in place for thousands of years. Gently blowing on a tray of the stripped flowers reveals hundreds of poppylike black seeds beneath. "How do you get food off of this?" a girl asks, and a description of to, a type of porridge made in Mali, follows.
"I can teach virtually everything in a garden," Richter says. "This is the way I feel for all kids, but middle-schoolers in particular: As soon as they start to ask questions, and as soon as you can pique their curiosity, you have them. You've got that engagement and you have them thinking these big-picture things. So I've been able to cultivate a pretty cool relationship with a lot of middle-school classes just from doing sophisticated lessons in the garden — sophisticated but super accessible, because their hands are in it. They can see it, they can feel it, they understand it."
The benefits of this kind of experiential education are readily apparent in the cafeteria, where Green students are rewriting the rules of what children will and will not touch. Name a vilified food, and Neujean has turned it into a clamored-for dish. Turnips? "Incredibly popular," she says. "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. ... We've stuffed ravioli with everything from nasturtium to spinach. It seems kind of bizarre to them, but they love the bizarre."
That love begins with planting and is cultivated through harvest, among the most popular activities at Green. Second-graders who grew new potatoes, Neujean says, "were digging for them like they were gold. They had no idea that potatoes came from the ground."
Once food reaches the Edible Kitchen, the familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it obliterates it. Darius Gray, a sixth-grader who started at Green in step with the garden ("My first year here, it was just a bunch of concrete and dirt"), tried spinach for the first time recently. "Tasted like broccoli," he says. "Maybe because it was growing next to broccoli."
Gray and classmates Michael Redmon and Javon Joseph were among the first to use the kitchen in its initial week of operation; they prepared basil pesto. Redmon toasted pine nuts and Joseph squeezed lemons. "Everybody was like, 'Mmm,'" Gray says.
But each has his own favorite yield from the garden. Gray's is the citrus, Redmon loves cucumbers, and Joseph prefers strawberries. Hearing this, Gray doesn't miss the chance to show off some newfound seasonal expertise. "But we have to wait till spring for the strawberries," he adds knowingly.
Green's 2009-10 calendar is an amalgamation of new endeavors and now-annual traditions. The most significant addition, the Edible Teaching Kitchen, will be used for classes and after-school pickling and preserving programs, as well as hosting Family Food Nights, a kind of parent/teacher conference in the guise of a hands-on, four-course tasting. Seventh-graders learning about early civilizations will not only read about Aztecs and Incas, but cook their native corn and squash; third-graders studying the natural resources of Cajuns and Creoles will do so through a contrast of gumbos and etouffees.
"Our plans are now focusing on programming," Neujean says. "We'll serve every child through the kitchen, as well as the garden, for the first time. Just like the garden does with science curriculum, we'll mostly tie the social studies (to the kitchen)."
First-year crops like cotton have led to first-time projects such as Farm Factory Fun, an examination of the raw materials used in T-shirts, paper or pencils, explains Richter: "Where do these things come from — do they come from a farm, a factory or the natural world? They realize that nothing actually comes from a store, that everything comes from a natural source."
Holdovers include Budding Entrepreneurs, a workshop for making garden crafts like gourd earrings and okra ornaments to be sold at the neighborhood Freret Market; and Meet the Farmer, wherein growers like Ben Burkett, who tends 255 acres in Hattiesburg, Miss., bring their wares to the garden, and Louisiana farms like Folsom's Red Bluff, Braithwaite's L'Hoste and Montz's Perrilloux open their gates to a swarm of buzzing field-trippers. "Our special events are weaved throughout the curriculum, the culture and food programs of the school," Cavato says. "We've built one for every grade level."
Recasner believes the Edible Schoolyard's greatest measure of success may lie in inspiring other institutions that the program's methods work, and he has evidence to back it up. Neujean, in addition to reforming the dining cultures at Green and Ashe, has begun helping schools in St. Tammany Parish design their own healthier menu alternatives.
"We get phone calls every single day about how to do this," she says. "So we're spending a lot of time coming up with a curriculum we can share, first steps in the garden and the kitchen, but also the cafeteria. We really see the cafeteria as the main gateway for other schools to get this kind of programming in. It seems like it's something that everybody wants to see change."
"We realize that our ability to build and install the garden at Green was unique to both the space that was available and the availability of funds," Recasner says. "But as a task force, we really believe that we can partner with other schools and other entities in the community, again, to really nurture this concept. That would be our gift as an organization to not just the kids that we serve, but to kids across the city."
In the meantime, Green's garden is the gift that keeps giving, producing hundreds of pounds of food every month — cabbages, beets, turnips, mustard greens — to be cooked in the kitchen or sent home with parents. "It's of such a scale that it really would have difficulty existing independently of the school," Recasner admits. But the inverse has also become true, he says. "We like to see ourselves as having developed a school that's in the middle of a garden."