EDIBLE SCHOOL YARDS

Donna Cavato, Program Director for the new Edible Schoolyard at the K-8 Green Charter School, gestures across a barren schoolyard covered with a layer of mulch. “It’s perfect. It’s full sun. There’s not a whole lot of concrete that we have to take out,” Cavato says. “This will be the main growing area.” After the levees failed, a foot and a half of floodwater filled the schoolyard on Valence near Freret. Over the next semester, trees, flowers and vegetables will cover the third-acre site and a lush garden will blossom in this urban neighborhood.

Elementary school children will learn math lessons about mass and volume using the soil from the garden. Middle school students will gather organic vegetables and cook them inside the airy kitchen with windows looking out on a side garden with a sundial. The students will discover their family histories as they tape interviews with their parents and grandparents about how they cook red beans or garden in New Orleans.

The students have already taken their first steps toward becoming gardeners. The second and third grade students have planted chives, parsley and rosemary in containers around the school’s entrance. The seventh and eighth graders have designed 3-D models for the future garden. Cavato, a Chicago native who has been working with New Orleans’ Parkway Partners for the last six years, says the students’ enthusiasm grows as they learn more about the garden. “They can’t wait. They want to garden tomorrow,” Cavato says, “and so do I.”

Teacher Donna Cavato with students Kanisha Burtect, Nathan Winston and Shannon Crawford.

Alice Waters created the first Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif. Waters, who founded the famed Chez Panisse Restaurant and leads the nationwide movement for local, sustainable agriculture, transformed a public middle school into a place where students both learn about food and use food as a way to learn. The garden and the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley are integrated into every subject at the school – from math and science, to history and literature. The Waters’ program is a model for school gardens across the country. Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation, which supports the Edible Schoolyard along with a program to improve school lunches in the Berkeley Unified School District, have never before allowed a school to create a second branch of their Edible Schoolyard.

After Katrina, Randy Fertel, the son of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse founder Ruth Fertel, attended a party in New York City thrown by The Nation magazine, and found himself discussing the future of New Orleans’ schools with education activist Jonathan Kozol. “Behind him Alice was listening,” Fertel remembers, “and she said, ‘What about me?’ This was too good to pass up.” Fertel, through his leadership of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, had supported the work of Anthony Recasner – a charismatic and brilliant local educator. Recasner founded New Orleans Charter Middle School, the city’s first charter school. From the time it opened in 1999, the school has been the highest-performing, non-magnet public middle school in the city. New Orleans Charter Middle School also had an ambitious garden program supported by the New Orleans Town Gardeners. Fertel approached Recasner, who had moved his work to Green Charter School after Katrina, about collaborating with Waters. They flew to Berkeley to see the program first-hand and meet the staff.

In Recasner, Waters found someone who shared her vision and passion for education. “Randy brought this wonderful, enlightened principal of the school up to visit,” Waters recalls in an oral history taken by the Southern Foodways Alliance last October. “We realized that we had everything in common.”

Many people had asked to work with the Edible Schoolyard and recreate the program, says Marsha Guerrero, the Director of Special Projects for Chez Panisse Foundation and the Coordinator of the Edible Schoolyard. But Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation had never encountered acceptable partners. “This is a very high quality program,” Guerrero says, “and we expect that it will be maintained in the same way.” They realized that Recasner, who she calls “a remarkable educator of the first order,” and the people supporting the program in New Orleans – Cavato, Fertel, Cathy Pierson of New Orleans Town Gardeners, The Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie and Slow Foods leader Poppy Tooker – were the partners they needed. “It’s a very impressive collection of people,” Guerrero says. “You have a lot of people who want to see something wonderful.”

“New Orleans,” she says, “was exactly the right place and exactly the right people. It’s kind of a dream.”

DESIGNING THE KITCHEN

Fertel believes that the Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans will prove that Waters’ approach to improving education through food and gardening can succeed across the country. “People can always say, well, she’s in Berkeley. You can do that in Berkeley,” he says. “Not only are we not in Berkeley, we’re in New Orleans.”

Over the fall last semester, the plans have been laid for the program in New Orleans. David Waggoner of Waggoner and Ball Architects volunteered to design the kitchen. Just before the storm, Marianne Mumford, a landscape architect and member of the New Orleans Town Gardeners, had completed a master plan for Recasner’s New Orleans Charter Middle School. The Edible Schoolyard gave her a chance to rethink how to design a school garden. She brought in Jeannette Roussell, another landscape architect at Mumford and her husband’s firm Landscape Images, along with landscape architect Terry Ibert of Ibert and Associates and landscape designer Byron Adams – whose family has run a garden center nearby on Freret Street for many years. She also sought input from the teachers, who were bursting with ideas on how to use the garden to teach their subjects. “They are the most creative group of teachers,” Mumford says. The students then suggested the addition of a sundial, weather stations, a wishing well and a time capsule to commemorate the school’s first class.

The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation donated $75,000 to the Edible Schoolyard and a party to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Chez Panisse Restaurant raised $110,000 in seed money for the New Orleans program. The Edible Schoolyard will cost roughly $200,000 a year to operate.

Recasner has been stoking the enthusiasms of parents, students and teachers about the possibilities of the Edible Schoolyard. “Sometimes you go too fast, and you miss the most important stage, which is to cultivate everybody’s interest,” he says. “You just make assumptions that folks are naturally interested.”

“We have a particularly strong group of science teachers on our faculty. The science teachers are looking forward to engaging with this immediately,” Recasner says. They see the garden as a tool to take a subject out of the textbook and make it concrete and real to the students. “Once it roots in the faculty and becomes a part of the teachers’ curriculum, then folks begin to see the possibility of how it becomes poetry, how it becomes literature and how it becomes math.”

Cavato describes the classes in the garden and the kitchen as, “hands on, experienced based learning,” which are designed to engage students in a way that enhances their education. In particular, the school hopes the program will raise students’ science scores on statewide exams.

The Edible Schoolyard also wants to teach the students values and reconnect them to their own culinary heritage. “The great thing about gardening and cooking is that it’s a team effort,” Fertel says. “If you ever saw the way these kids behave in these classes, they’re just so civil and civilized by the process of digging the earth together and then cooking what they’ve grown.”

Cavato hopes the largely African-American students will learn about the city’s tradition of Creole gardening, a style of urban gardening unique to New Orleans that mixes vegetables, herbs and ornamental plants on small plots of land or in courtyards. “If you look about our city, what do you see? There is not a whole lot of gardening going on,” she says. “If there is, it’s happening by grandparents.”

KNOWING THE SATSUMA
Many students have lost contact with this gardening tradition and the native foods of the region. “I’ve been sampling some of the kids,” Cavato says, “and out of four classes there are only about three children that knew what a Satsuma was.” Visits by regional farmers and the culinary board of the Edible Schoolyard, which includes Leah Chase, John Folse and Ken Smith of Upperline, will teach the students about their own food traditions.

As childhood obesity increases and type II diabetes becomes rampant among children, the Edible Schoolyard hopes to improve the students’ health by teaching them about good food. “I think they’ll be eating better,” Cavato says. “I think they’ll know what are locally grown foods.”

The Edible Schoolyard hopes to benefit the economy of the city and even the state. The students will cook from the garden, but the small plot of land cannot supply food for their daily meals. Green Charter School, however, hopes to offer its students meals that meet the standards of the food the students prepare themselves from the garden. They hope to partner with area farmers and food producers to supply the school cafeteria, supporting Louisiana’s small producers and maintaining the food traditions of the state.

“We’re really a stone’s throw from farmers. It doesn’t take a long bus ride to get you in the middle of a strawberry patch,” Recasner says. “Like the farmers market took root, I think there is a lot of opportunity for this garden to serve this city well for a long time.” Waters, in the oral history recorded by the Southern Foodways Alliance, shares this vision of the Edible Schoolyard as a boon to the local economy. “The Edible Schoolyard intends to be an economic engine for the local economy,” she says. “What better way to revive the farming, the businesses, if you have a school system that buys from them.”

The Edible Schoolyard at the Green Charter School is symbol of hope for New Orleans’ recovery. “It’s a chance for kids and adults to reclaim their land and a part of their community that was lost, or partially lost, to Katrina,” says Cavato. Beyond recovery, the Edible Schoolyard is a story of rebirth. A group of talented and dedicated people joined together to improve the lives of the city’s children. Before the storm, New Orleans public schools in the city were “largely abysmal,” according to Recasner. After the storm, Green Charter School and the Edible Schoolyard may become a school that cities across the country will admire and imitate.

“If we don’t invest in programs like these that get us back to basics, we’re in jeopardy of losing our food heritage. That’s really what our economy is based on,” Cavato says. “But more importantly, that’s what our community is based on.”

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