It’s almost too incredible to be true: Elementary school children across New Orleans are begging their teachers to eat small snacks of kale, listing lettuce and carrots among their all-time favorite foods, crafting their own regional and global cuisine, and even (in a sight that must be seen to be believed) clamoring to be chosen to scrub the dishes after their meal.
Miracles like these are happening every day at Samuel J. Green Charter School, as well as the four other FirstLine public charter schools: Arthur Ashe Charter School, Phillis Wheatley Community School, Langston Hughes Academy and Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School.
Since 2006, all five schools have been participating in FirstLine’s signature program called Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, founded in the city post-Hurricane Katrina. The program uses school gardens and teaching kitchens to show children how to connect with nature, their food and one another.
“We were one of the first schools that reopened in the city after Katrina,” said Dominique Harris, director of communication and community partnerships for FirstLine Schools.
“At that time, there was this especially pressing need to have a space where children and the community could come and connect with each other and the area around them — a place that could feel like home again.”
At Samuel J. Green, the garden is in full bloom, spanning a full one-third of an acre.
“A majority of what we grow here is edible, so the kids can grow their food, harvest it and prepare it themselves,” said Kerrie Partridge, program coordination for Edible Schoolyard New Orleans. “The incredible thing is that when they’ve done all this, it’s very rare that they don’t eat the food. At the end of a class, they’ve all got their hands out, eager to try the chard or the basil.”
After harvesting their crops, students head to the teaching kitchen steps away, where they create their own dishes, led by professional culinary educators and assisted by community volunteers. While studying Mexico, the third-graders created their own molé sauce from ingredients grown right next to their playground. The magic of Edible Schoolyard, however, isn’t that it teaches children gardening and cooking skills — it’s that it uses these activities as a way to impart valuable life skills.
“My favorite thing is that we learn math and reading and science,” said third-grader Omar Williams as he beamed over his bowl of chips and molé.
“Geography, too,” added Partridge. “They basically travel the world through food.”
As the second-graders walked through the garden, one stopped to ask their teacher, Jahmal Hurst, if they could pick the rosemary.
“Sure,” he said. “Just remember to get just the tips.”
Hurst, an alum of Samuel J. Green, has now returned to teach with the program.
“One of the things he’s done is teach the kids about aromatherapy,” Partridge said. “Every once in a while, a kid will be having a tough day, and I’ll see them go over and pick some rosemary and just smell it for a while before joining the group again.”
The Edible Schoolyard program is funded by a mix of donations and grants, but its biggest fundraiser of the year is an annual garden party called “An Edible Evening.” The event will be held Thursday at the garden inside Langston Hughes Academy.
“We’re going to have 30-plus local restaurants, two stages with live music, a signature cocktail created with some of our organic greens and organic wine from Presqu’ile Winery,” Partridge said. “It’s a really beautiful, fun party, and it serves such an important purpose — helping us with costs like staffing that it’s hard to get grants for. All 26 staff and volunteers in the program come together to put on the event. We do it ourselves because we want to share this program with everyone.”