What did you do for Earth Day yesterday? Did you plant something? Walk or bike to work? Commit to using reusable bags at the grocery store?
In New Orleans, more than 600 elementary students celebrated Earth Day simply by going to school and doing what they do every other day: they learned math, science, language, health – and plenty about the earth – by working in the school garden. At day’s end, they went home and shared their harvest, both figuratively and literally, with their families, friends and neighbors. At the Samuel L. Green and the Arthur Ashe Charter schools in New Orleans, it wasn’t just Earth Day, it was Every Day.
I’ve seen first-hand how each school day for these children not only means a better planet for us all, but a better life, a better education and better opportunities.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, the already challenged New Orleans public education system suffered a nearly fatal blow. And yet, 4 ½ years later, it is the scene of one of the most innovative, lifestyle-changing concepts available today in elementary education: the Edible Schoolyard (ESYNOLA).
The Edible Schoolyard concept, originally developed in Berkeley, Calif., by world-famous chef Alice Waters, involves converting school property into extensive gardens, where students learn about horticulture, then grow, prepare, eat and sell their own food. Students truly learn what it means to be “green.” They and their families also learn how to make healthy diet choices that will pay off in improved health for the rest of their lives. Student academic performance has improved by the combination of teamwork, healthy diet, and tangibility and relevance of the subject material. They are not just reading about science and health or “being green” in a book anymore; they are experiencing it with all their senses.
I had the chance to get involved with the ESYNOLA project two years ago, when we began working on the “Operation Kids: Rebuilding Dreams in New Orleans” campaign. I cannot begin to tell you what an amazing change took place as funding transformed a squat brick building into a thriving community of education, health, wellness and progress.
When ESYNOLA sent in their progress report, detailing how they had used funds from the Rebuilding Dreams campaign, I was amazed. Hundreds of children, many of whom rarely saw a vegetable in their daily diets, have become venerable gardeners, eco-champions and healthy, successful entrepreneurs – all while getting a quality education in more traditional areas.
The story can only begin to be told through highlights of this program’s success:
- The Edible Garden portion of the project is complete and the garden is fully producing. The garden contains hundreds of seasonal vegetable, herb, flower and edible tree varieties. Students are currently growing strawberries, greens, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, citrus fruits and herbs. More than 500 pounds of produce has already come from the garden in just a few months. The produce has been used in seasonal cooking classes and some of the surplus given away at no cost to families of students. The students aren’t alone in participating at the Edible Schoolyard; entire families visit after school hours and on weekends to help tend the gardens. It has truly become a community investment.
- Gardening classes include weekly lower school classes, weekly 4th and 8th grade garden science classes, and after-school elective classes that operate Monday through Thursday for all grade levels. Edible Garden classes teach core life science subject matter such as seasonality, weather, lifecycles, food webs, carbon and water cycles, decomposition, plant parts and functions, ecosystems, and ecology. Edible Garden classes also reinforce core lessons of math standards such as measurements and calculations, and language through journaling and identification activities.
- On the cooking side, the Garden’s chef teacher leads weekly “Food ABC” classes. Children are exposed to a variety of new foods as they learn the alphabet. Incorporated in the lessons are language reinforcement and focus on learning table manners. The chef teacher also develops and implements seasonal cooking classes for all grade levels. Recently, a 4th grade activity tied activities in the garden and kitchen with learning about the settlement of Louisiana. Hands-on activities were tied to state standards in social studies.
- The outdoor classroom is now complete, and boasts a “green living roof.” This fall, students in grades 2-8th grades planted more than 200 planter boxes that now make up the 3-tiered green roof. The school’s staff and students researched native plant types and learned about the environmental benefits of living roofs. The green roof has its own irrigation system and also has a water catchment system that captures and routes excess rainwater to an onsite wetlands area. Over the next year, the plants and vines will mature and spill out over the top and sides of the classroom. The “green” outdoor classroom couldn’t be a more perfect venue to teach ecology through hands-on sustainable garden and earth practices.
- Edible’s chef teacher, April Neujean, has also been able to make significant changes in the foodservice and dining culture at both schools. Accomplishments this year include eliminating foods in high fructose corn syrup, “mystery meats” and other highly processed foods, incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal, offering a daily salad bar, and the offering more whole. The acceptance of these changes from the students continues to be highly successful, largely in part because of the experiences and context ESYNOLA provides through the garden, kitchen, and special events such as quarterly Meet the Farmer events. Over the next few years, school administrators envision a complete transformation of food and cooking programs for many other affiliated schools.
In a community where there is so much attention focused on what is broken, I’m happy to report that there are good things happening in New Orleans. ESYNOLA is more than just about teaching 600 children to garden, eat better and become responsible citizens – it is about resilience, community, hard work and long-term investment in a rising generation.
If you get the time the next time you’re in New Orleans, you just might want to check it out for yourself.