New Orleans schools embrace edible gardens

Nutrition, sustainability and culinary arts all are part of the curriculum



School gardens have come a long way since the days of growing bean plants in Mason jars for science class. Schools across New Orleans are embracing edible gardens ranging from traditional to hydroponic and using the produce in their menus and to teach children experientially about nutrition, how food gets from the garden to the table, sustainability practices and the culinary arts.

  St. Paul's Episcopal School, which has students from 2 years old through eighth grade, started its garden program in 2008 as a way to teach sustainability and "service learning," an educational approach that balances traditional classroom instruction with real life lessons. Today the garden is utilized throughout the curriculum, and each grade has its own garden bed with a theme that correlates to its studies. Fourth grade students studying the Middle Ages, for example, planted a medieval garden and eighth-graders learning about the Vietnam War used ingredients from their garden plot to prepare Vietnamese cuisine. Other themes include a space garden, a victory garden, a wetlands garden and a Native American garden. Director of Admissions Sylvia Parks and Sustainability Education Coordinator Susan Malone, a master gardener, say the students' enthusiasm is infectious and the ongoing development of the garden is largely student driven. "The ideas just keep building," Malone says.

  Several years ago, the school added an outdoor culinary center with a kit-chen, where students conduct various projects, including developing original herb blends used for cooking and making dipping oils and dressings that are sold to help raise money for the program. Malone says the herb blends project has taught students a host of business lessons including marketing, package design, quality control and assembly-line production. According to Malone and Parks, lessons are wide-ranging: brainstorming, conceptualizing, decision-making, supply and demand, food chemistry, math and science, history, cultural culinary traditions, sustainability practices such as composting and more.

  As the service component, St. Paul students share the benefits of gardening through the school's PAWS to Work program in which students build gardens for other schools and the elderly. So far, St. Paul's students have installed gardens for a senior citizens community center and the New Orleans Oral School for the hearing impaired.

  "The garden is considered a classroom," Parks says. "At St. Paul's there is a lot of integrated learning. We believe in learning by doing and not just reading it in a book."

The New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), Louisiana's public arts conservatory, offers students a hands-on garden experience that cuts across the spectrum of educational disciplines and extends beyond the campus.

  The school first cultivated gardens in satellite green spaces, rented from Habitat Urban Garden for $1 apiece, near the campus. Earlier this year, NOCCA opened the on-site Press Street Gardens, for use by its faculty, staff, students and the public. It's a project of the NOCCA Institute, the school's nonprofit partner organization. In addition to being used by the Culinary Arts Department, now in its fifth year, the garden is used by the Academic Studio, which incorporates it into science, math and history lessons, and the Visual Arts Department, which uses the garden for drawing, painting, photography and more.

  "The applications are endless," says chef Dana Tuohy, chairwoman of the Culinary Arts Department. "It's just a matter of fitting it into an already busy curriculum."

  According to Tuohy, all culinary students at a certain level do a garden internship/entrepreneurship program, which incorporates business skills by selling NOCCA-grown produce and flowers at the local farmer's market and preparing and selling brunches made from seasonal garden ingredients out of the NOCCA Institute's Boxcar food truck. For students in the culinary program, the garden has been a path of discovery for careers that fall under the culinary umbrella, such as dietician, farmer and sustainability advocate.

  One of the most important effects of the garden, according to Tuohy, is the connection it fosters between students and nature. "It introduces them to an understanding of where food comes from," she says. "It doesn't grow on a Styrofoam plate wrapped in plastic."

  Horticulturist Margee Green, manager of the Press Street Garden, adds that the firsthand experience is an unparalleled way of teaching otherwise ephemeral ideas of how human beings interact with plants. "When students are actually touching and seeing how plants affect their lives, concepts stick in their heads in a way that they don't when they come from a book, or a movie or a slide," Green says.

At Isidore Newman School, an independent, coed school for pre-kindergarteners through 12th-graders, the school's food provider, SAGE Dining Services, maintains a hydroponic garden on site and incorporates the produce into its menus.

  The 25-year-old SAGE provides fresh, locally sourced and made-from-scratch healthy foods to small colleges and independent schools across the U.S. and Canada. SAGE, which began its gardening program about 15 years ago, now has about 100 gardens ranging from indoor growing centers made from converted salad bars to outdoor in-ground gardens. In 2013, Newman opted for a hydroponic garden due to limited space on its 10-acre campus, and SAGE maintains the garden with the help of VertiFarms, a hydroponic equipment supplier in New Orleans.

  "This was a solution accessible to Newman's landscape," says Elise Ehrlich, SAGE's food service director at Newman. "It's an ideal way to grow a garden in a small space."

  The six-tower garden has spring and fall growing seasons and a diverse array of produce, including edible flowers, tomatoes, peppers, mini cucumbers, eggplant and eight kinds of lettuces and herbs, Ehrlich says. SAGE uses the harvested foods in school meals and catering for events at the school.

  While Newman students aren't responsible for the garden, they do have access to the area and are allowed to observe, inquire, touch and pick the plants. "It's a great educational experience for the kids who see it growing," Ehrlich says.

  Though Newman's garden is not large enough to feed its entire community of faculty and students, what it produces is used in a variety of ways. For example, basil is used in pesto dishes and lettuces and kale can be used with other locally sourced greens in salads.

  "Fresher tastes better," Ehrlich says.

  SAGE believes the effect on students has been positive in other ways. "We have definitely seen a progression over the years of students getting more involved and wanting to be more involved," says Anne Wozniak-Freedman, communications manager for SAGE. "It's no longer just a trend, especially with the 'clean eating' movement." ("Clean eating promotes consuming fresh foods with all-natural ingredients and avoiding processed foods.)

Empowering public charter school students "to build and maintain healthy relationships with food, the natural world, themselves and their community" is the mission of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA), now in its ninth year. Started by FirstLine Schools, a charter management organization that operates five open-admissions public schools, ESYNOLA provides food education for 3,000 students. It encompasses nearly 4,000 garden and culinary classes, 70 food education events for the greater community each year (from meeting farmers and holding festivals to chef competitions and family food nights), organic gardening practices, wellness education and a sense of community through shared meals.

  ESYNOLA was modeled after renowned Berkeley chef Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard program. While Waters' original concept was designed for middle school students, New Orleans' comprehensive adaptation provides instruction for kindergarten through 12th grade. Of the five schools that offer the program, Samuel J. Green and Arthur Ashe have large gardens and teaching kitchens, while Langston Hughes Academy has a large garden, as well as live animals and a small culinary demonstration area. Phillis Wheatley Community School's garden started last year and the school plans to build a teaching kitchen. Joseph S. Clark, FirstLine's high school, has aeroponic towers for growing edible plants in a small space.

  Funded primarily through grants and donations, the Edible Schoolyard initiative teaches practical gardening and culinary skills. It also teaches students nutritional and entrepreneurial knowledge and how to appreciate food.

  "They learn a language to express what they like and don't like," says ESYNOLA Executive Director Claudia Barker. At the same time, because edible education is woven into the curriculums of the schools, it reinforces core concepts in science, math, language arts, and social studies.

  The program is in part a response to the local population's disproportionate rate of diabetes and heart disease, which are directly related to diet, Barker says.

  It seems to be having a positive effect. A survey of ESYNOLA students conducted by Tulane's Prevention Research Center in 2014 reported students were eating more fruits and vegetables and had a better overall knowledge of food. It's also reconnecting children with nature.

  "It's not just about food access," Barker says. "It's about being in the natural world. Our gardens are safe spaces, oases in the middle of an urban landscape."

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