Growth Potential: The Edible Schoolyard New Orleans


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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: Dr. Recasner, president of FirstLine Schools, Green and the nearby elementary Arthur Ashe Charter School, where plans for New Orleans’ second Edible Schoolyard are already in the works.

Interviewing your staff, I was surprised to find they come from all over the country, from Alaska to Colorado to New Orleans to New York. What sets them apart from the average schoolteachers?

I think what makes the program staff unique is they really have expertise in the areas in which they work. We’re really lucky in that they have expertise and experience, as well as passion for the work and commitment to the ideals of the program. So we’re sort of extraordinarily fortunate in that sense. They bring in a wide range of knowledge — programmatic, work with kids, fundraising, ideas — along with the folks who are on the Task Force, who really make this an extraordinary team. These are all people who are friends of Alice, and have supported her ideals and her foundation, and clearly have demonstrated support for kids and this kind of curriculum in their respective communities across the country. What I’ve learned is, this is about our garden and what we’re doing, but it’s also related to a broader movement, which is that their partnership and friendship with Alice in other places furthers our efforts here — because they’re talking about what we’re doing, they’re celebrating what we’re doing, and they’re able to point to our school as one of the shining examples of how all of these elements come together.

In a 2006 interview, at the start of the Edible Schoolyard NOLA, you talked about how institutionalized curricula such as this have the ability to spread quickly. Three years later, it seems FirstLine is still unique in its approach. Are others following your lead?

I think we are the only program with as many elements, and I think that’s just because people came together to support this effort. It was the perfect storm — the board (and) folks on our Task Force are gardeners and chefs who are committed to the whole food-farm-table concept, sustainable regional farming. 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 this coalition around this effort. There are other schools, like Lusher, working to improve food service. We certainly have inspired others to believe that kids will eat healthier, and we have partnered with others conceptually to demonstrate the power of this particular curriculum. April has worked with the schools in St. Tammany parish to plan menus for the year, all because we’re demonstrating that kids will really eat healthier foods.

What kind of evidence have you seen?

Mostly anecdotal. One, we see the kids really do eat different things. And they choose to eat different things. When you give the kids a granola bar, as opposed to a candy bar, they don’t frown anymore. It’s a reasonable substitute. When the parents visit, [they] talk openly about when they are now shopping with their children, the children go to different sections of the supermarket: They go to the produce section, and are as interested in those things being put in the shopping basket as they are in the potato chips. Because they know about it. The parents, they are eating and enjoying different things. What you see is that, in the community, there is a great deal of anxiety about food that’s led to issues of obesity and poor health. Our young parents in particular are as concerned about those things for themselves as they are about their children. But they didn’t really have a safe venue, an easy venue, to get access to information. And also, to get alternatives. What you see in the Open Garden Day, and some of our family nights, you see evidence that folks are trying new things, enjoying them, and then really wanting to know how to prepare things differently, so that they can sort of reduce their anxiety about their food intake.

Two differing sentiments came up in the interviews: that the USDA federal regulations hindered your ability to enact change quickly, but that being a charter school allowed you greater freedom to pursue those changes.

Both things are true in this sense. Because we are dependent on the federal food nutrition program, the range of choices is limited. The availability of different farmers and producers of different food that Sedexo will work with is limited, because of insurance requirements, etc. So April and Donna worked really hard with the Sedexo staff to get the best available food off the commodities list that is more compatible with this program and the mission of our school. So that’s been the great challenge. And also, to stay at this long enough to get the folks at Sedexo to understand that once we started choosing those foods from the commodities list, that those foods would be consumed. There’s the other issue: 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. There’s some accountability on that side. We’d like there to be a wider variety of options.

On the other hand, as a charter school, we can engage in this conversation with Sedexo on our own behalf. As opposed to officials from a school district having to negotiate food service for any number of schools — they seemed always less likely to want to make exceptions between schools. They keep everything the same, I guess to avoid any appearance of favoritism. So we really get to advocate on behalf of ourselves and our kids. And it’s only because we’re a charter school, and we have the direct contract with Sedexo, that allows us to do that. MLK is a traditional public school, and that individual school does not have the autonomy to negotiate with their food service provider. There is a centralized system there that is doing that. So the advantage of Berkeley, it’s a smaller district and much more progressive, and as a result, they probably have access to better quality food and a wider variety. We would be more likely to be treated like a typical urban public school system, where the belief is there are no advocates for improved food for kids.

At the beginning, you estimated a construction cost of around a million dollars. What's the final figure, and who are some of your major donors?

It clearly exceeds a million dollars to build the infrastructure. The kitchen alone was $650,000. Most of that was one-time costs. For funding, Emeril (Lagasse) has been a great source. It’s been individuals and foundations, locally and nationally. The Fertel Foundation was a major contributor. Octavia Holdings, a company out of California. Viking has been great on the kitchen side, to donate the equipment — let me tell you! [Laughs] We feel really fortunate to be stewards of this, from our end.

How did Randy Fertel connect Alice Waters to New Orleans?

Randy met Alice in New York. And Randy had an existing relationship with our school, when we were New Orleans Charter Middle School. He was aware we had an interest in gardening. He had visited the school, saw that we had a very small gardening program, but we did produce some vegetables that the kids used in a sort of gardening cooking class. There were volunteers from the Uptown Gardeners that would come in and work with a master gardener who was a part-time person on our staff. So when Alice indicated an interest at a benefit in New York, Randy put two and two together. Randy introduced the concept to me and asked whether I would have an interest in bringing that gardening program to Green, but at a different scale. We eventually went out to see the garden at MLK, and realized that the mission and philosophy of what we were trying to achieve in our schools was very much consistent with Alice’s ideals for the program.

And New Orleans Town Gardeners?

Cathy Pierson had worked tirelessly over many years to build that team of gardeners and volunteers to really support our efforts at NOLA Charter Middle. So we had a local philanthropic citizen constituency, a la Cathy Pierson; Randy brought the connection with Alice. Cathy was on the kids’ side, Randy was on the cultural side, and my role as the administrator was just to bring it all together as the architect, in a sense, and make sure the sum total of it all really did magnify all of the ideals and the beliefs, but in a way that we could do it under the unique umbrella of a charter school. So having the autonomy that I have, to basically bring all the parties together and commit to it, say yes and then work to provide the internal resources to make time available for the kids to do it, make the school one and the same with the ESY. It’s of such a scale that it really would have difficulty existing independently of the school. We’d like to see ourselves as having developed a school that’s in the middle of a garden.

What’s next for FirstLine?

We’re hoping that at each school we operate, the ESY becomes a part of the fabric of that campus. It may be at different scales. 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. But as a task force we really believe that it’s at least spread throughout all of our schools at a scale that makes a difference, and that we can partner with other schools and other entities in the community, again, to really nurture this concept across the city. That would be our gift as an organization to not just the kids that we serve, but to kids across the city.


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