Surrounded by rows of glistening cabbages, spinach, lettuce, collard greens and mustard greens, lead garden educator Amy Zellweger instructed her students to put on their “thinking caps.” The Langston Hughes Academy kindergartners were sitting in a circle in the Dreamkeeper Garden, learning how to use their eyes, ears, nose and touch to observe changes in the life cycles of farm animals.
“Literacy, science and math happen in the garden,” said Claudia Barker, executive director of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, a signature program of FirstLine Schools. “The kids experience science education through digging in the dirt,” she said.
The quarter-acre plot, begun in 2008 by Zellweger, then an Americorps volunteer, Parkway Partners and the LSU Ag Center, is one of five public school gardens managed by Edible Schoolyard. The program aims to change the way children eat, learn and live. The curriculum integrates hands-on organic gardening and seasonal cooking taught in the outdoor classroom.
The concept of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans began when philanthropist Randy Fertel, a supporter of New Orleans Charter Middle School, approached Chef Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant and the original Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California.
The initiative was seen as a way to transform the physical campuses after Hurricane Katrina while rebuilding a foundation for the larger community.
“I felt the Edible Schoolyard idea could be deeply planted in New Orleans, because of the devastation and the dislocation that the people of the city had experienced. It is always hopeful when you put a seed in the ground and watch it grow, and it is most amazing is when it produces food that you can eat,” Waters said.
Today, the Dreamkeeper Garden grows produce and supports several free-range hens and three goats. The magical site, flanking the entire side of the school, incorporates a culinary herb garden fashioned from discarded automobile tires; a bathtub and bathroom sink converted into raised garden beds; and a butterfly meadow. Inspirational quotes by Langston Hughes, Rumi and Martin Luther King, among other spiritual leaders, are scattered between the rows.
Kindergarten through fourth-grade students take science class outdoors while middle-school entrepreneurs sell produce and fresh eggs at Crescent City Farmers Market, visit farms to pick blueberries and watermelons and learn how to cook healthier versions of typical New Orleans meals.
“Once they taste a Brussels sprout they’ve grown, they’ll eat it,” said Barker, contradicting the notion that children will not eat vegetables.
FirstLine students develop a healthy relationship with food and come to understand the negative health consequences of poor nutrition.
But holistic education comes at a price. Edible Schoolyard’s educational programs and 25 staff member salaries cost $1.1 million per year.
To help meet those financial goals, the nonprofit mounts an annual fundraiser, “An Edible Evening,” held this year in the Dreamkeeper Garden from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., March 26, featuring foods from some of the city’s top restaurants, wine from Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Barbara, California, and music by Tuba Skinny and The Breton Sound.
Tickets are $45 until Tuesday, March 24. Visit esynola.org for information.