These days, students give the best tours of our gardens. You might overhear them say things like:
“Here is where we used to have a Monarch chrysalis.”
“Here is where I chop compost, and give it to the worms to eat.”
“Here is a flower I brought to my Grandma.”
“This is my magical spot, where I can be myself.”
Getting to this place–where what used to be a concrete yard next to a school is now a living, breathing, food-producing ecosystem, powered and beloved and owned by students–has taken us… awhile. Wander with us along the winding garden path that is our 17-year history, and we will point out some sights along the way.
We start with the return to school after Hurricane Katrina: our history began with a few plants in pots in the side yard of Samuel J. Green school. Brilliant children, whose lives had been disrupted by the floods that followed the storm, were unable to sit still and had difficulty focusing. Dr. Anthony Recasner, a child psychologist and leader of the reopening of Green, recognized these early signs of trauma. He had seen in garden club at New Orleans Charter Middle how being outdoors and taking care of living things gave children agency, confidence, and a sense of community, and he saw the busted-up back of the campus as an opportunity. So when the famous chef, Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, came to New Orleans, and asked if Green would like to replicate her model of edible education, Recasner said yes.
He hired Donna Cavato, an experienced gardener with a social work background, to develop the program. She asked families what they wanted, and listened carefully. Cavato remembers, “When students and families saw the garden infrastructure, then later the Teaching Kitchen, several parents and students were in tears from joy. One mom said, ‘You kept telling us all these things you were going to do and build for our kids, and then to see it….Our community has been promised so many things in the past that never worked out, but you kept your promise to us.’”
Culinary classes began in a corner classroom at Green, using hot plates, until the teaching kitchen was built. Teachers grew with experience, and coached each other in best practices for teaching outdoors. They learned how best to collaborate with science teachers, what worked best in the kitchen, and what families valued most from the space and the program. The buds of a network of school gardens were growing.
Building on Green’s success, the program expanded: Arthur Ashe Charter School (uptown) in 2007; Langston Hughes Academy (LHA) and John Dibert in 2010. Arthur Ashe moved to a new building with space for a large garden and teaching kitchen in 2012. LHA got goats, rabbits, chickens, and later, a pot-bellied pig. Dibert moved to Treme and became Phillis Wheatley Community School. We started a culinary and garden program at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School, becoming a home to aeroponics towers and culinary classes. Students, volunteers, and new staff members worked together to build beautiful gardens at each school.
Over the years, as our schedule of garden and culinary classes expanded, our team’s expertise deepened. With regular observations and coaching, teacher effectiveness improved. We developed a curriculum, built upon the best research in social and emotional learning techniques, which celebrates the cultural wealth of our region. Edible Schoolyard New Orleans became “a signature program of FirstLine Schools,” our ultimate mission, “to teach children to make healthy connections through food and the natural world.”
Event offerings expanded as well. Iron Chef competitions paired professional chefs with students to make creative concoctions with secret ingredients. Open Garden Days brought families and neighbors together to learn and care for the gardens. Family Food Nights gave students a chance to show their knife and recipe-reading skills to their cousins, as whole families cooked and enjoyed meals together.
2013 marked the advent of Sweet Potato Fest, an annual harvest and wellness festival at Ashe. With the snip of a ribbon by the school directors, students and families flooded the fields to joyfully harvest sweet potatoes, taste and share sweet potato dishes, and parade around the neighborhood. Sweet Potato Fest has drawn participation from the likes of the Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry and the Buffalo Soldiers.
In the spring of 2016, five garden students from Ashe went to the White House to garden with Michelle Obama. Kneeling in the White House garden with his hands in the soil alongside the First Lady, one Ashe student told Ms. Obama about the garden at his school in New Orleans, what he was growing, what he was curious about, and what he loved.
In the early months of the pandemic when schools closed, ESYNOLA responded to the changing needs of the community. We provided social and emotional learning support, delivered food and supplies, and produced cookbooks and videos. When schools reopened in August 2020, we resumed hands-on learning, a joy after months of distance and separation. Our return came with improved safety precautions, infrastructure like outdoor hand washing stations, and increased commitment towards trauma-informed practices, listening to elders, and equity.
As in any garden, there have been losses, too. Changes to our network of schools and funding adjustments have shifted our program shape, and there are staff who have moved on whom we dearly miss. We are reminded of our purpose when we watch students thrive in our spaces–carefully handling the tiniest worms, tasting food that they grew and cooked with love and pride, and sharing about themselves in an environment that feels safe and expansive. We know that the connections students are making at ESYNOLA now will last a lifetime.
Our path has been a winding one that will continue to meander, but moments happen each day that let us know we are in the right place. In the first few weeks of school this year, in an LHA garden class, a student was asked how she felt about the garden. She immediately replied, “This garden? This garden is my home.”
Key sponsors who made our work possible over the years include the Murphy Foundation, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Octavia Foundation, and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, all of whom continue to support us today.