For centuries educators have known the importance of introducing children to the wonders of gardening. In 1906 the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens. During the Great Depression, youth participated in relief gardening programs, and during World War II, Victory Gardens swept the nation. But sadly, after that, school gardens became the exception, not the rule.
Thankfully, in the past few years, there's been a bit of a resurgence in programs that connect our youth to the land.
Participating in such programs helps students learn a multitude of things, from how to measure properly to what insects can be beneficial. In addition, gardening provides opportunities to learn such positive social qualities as nurturing life and accepting responsibility. Thousands of evaluations have been done, and the results clearly show that school-based gardening programs have very positive impacts, such as teaching students about nutrition and increasing their fruit and vegetable intake and their willingness to try new foods.
Founded in 2006, Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, or ESY NOLA, is one of New Orleans' best-known school garden programs. This one-third-acre garden is on the campus of Samuel J. Green Charter School and yields more than 3,000 pounds of produce a year.
The garden includes a composting station, an outdoor classroom, a wetlands area, a citrus grove, seasonal row crops, a butterfly garden and a spacious greenhouse. And now ESY NOLA has gardening programs at five FirstLine public charter schools.
In a corner of City Park, nestled next to a peaceful bayou, is an exciting new garden program that builds on what ESY NOLA and other programs have accomplished with younger students. Grow Dat Youth Farm creates job opportunities for high school students in the field of urban agriculture.
“The centerpiece of our program is to nurture the student's leadership potential through the meaningful work of growing food,” says Leo Gorman, Grow Dat farm manager.
This winter the Grow Dat youth will sell their produce from their farm site and their mobile farm stand. Their plan is to sell 60 percent of their food in such places as markets, restaurants and corner stores and donate 40 percent to various locations, including hunger-relief agencies.
Now venture into the Lower 9th Ward, and you'll discover Our School at Blair Grocery. It's an independent alternative school. With the teenagers in their high school and neighborhood after-school program, the organization operates an experiential curriculum that incorporates sustainability thinking with GED preparation. These youth also sell their produce to many high-end restaurants in the New Orleans area.
Nat Turner, founder of Our School at Blair Grocery, knows that there is much more going on at the farm than just growing and selling produce.
“Some of our kids come from unpredictable and traumatic homes where there is a great deal of instability and not much structure,” he says. “From one moment to the next, they don't know if they'll be beaten or hugged. The garden is a calming place that offers them some much-needed structure.”
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working at Warren Easton High School helping students tend a small courtyard garden. I never heard a single complaint about working in that garden. They joked about whose tomato plants had the most tomatoes and who had the tallest sunflowers. And though I've had many memorable meals at such places as Antoine’s, one of my top dining experiences was sharing the harvest from that little garden. The kids truly beamed as they offered up the rewards of their labor.
Rachel Speck spent her summer teaching gardening to campers at Harmony Oaks Apartments and the Iberville Housing Projects. She wanted to show the children, ages 3 to 12, where their food really came from and that they could grow some of their very own food. It was an enriching experience for her, and it had another great bonus.
“The kids really seemed to love it,” she says. “When we planted lima beans, they were so excited just seeing their plants grow.”
After this experience, Imani, an 8-year-old camper, thinks she just might grow up to be a farmer.
“I love gardening,” she says. “It was so much fun and a nice thing to do. I wish I had a garden at my house.”
If your child's or grandchild's school doesn't have a garden, think about what you can do to get one started. The city is full of resources. A good place to start is with LSU AgCenter's agent Russell Harris at (504) 483-9471. He'll supply you with great information and many helpful tips. Or schedule a visit to the Edible Schoolyard – the 45-minute tours are a great opportunity to meet other people interested in edible education. Tours are held regularly, but reservations are required. ESY NOLA can be reached at (504) 267-9053.
Influential British horticulturist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll sums it all up pretty succinctly: "The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies."