Marlena Nip (pronounced Mar-lee-nah) is from Alameda, CA. Her mother was her garden teacher, and she grew up in a school with a large garden. She studied political science and environmental studies in Loyola Marymount, CA. Just out of college, she served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in the Seattle area. Following that, she was a garden and culinary educator for at FoodCorps in Hawaii, then oversaw the FoodCorps program in Mississippi. She discovered ESYNOLA when she signed up to volunteer at Edible Evening, and joined our team in fall of 2018.
How would you describe your job to a Pre-K student?
I’m the Garden Mama who brings you out to the garden to explore.
You grew up with garden education as a part of your life. What do you think sparked your interest in becoming a garden educator yourself?
Yeah, When I was a kid I had a garden in my backyard and also at my school. I could explore a worm bin, pick fresh strawberries. But since it was a part of my upbringing I didn’t think anything of it. The turning point for me was when I was in Hawaii, working with kids in a garden setting. In my kindergarten class there was this one kid who, on the first day of garden class, said, “I HATE fruits and vegetables!” Of course I cringed at that, and thought, by the end of the year, I’m at least going to have you drink a smoothie or something. And so, at the end of the year, I remember him pulling out a radish from the garden that we’d planted. He looked at it in awe. We brought it back in the classroom to clean it and cut it up. And all the kids wanted to eat it. I was a little wary, you know raw radishes can be spicy, but they were so drawn to it. They’d planted and harvested it. They all ate it and just loved it, including that kid. That was a moment when I realized I had always found so much joy in watching plants grow, and then saw children find the same wonder in the garden. If I can give just a little bit of that to kids,… dang, what a dream job!
What part of ESYNOLA programming, mission or values speaks to you most?
In New Orleans, food is in the center of culture. I see that playing out in our classes. Kids come into class, saying, “My grandma makes this,” and “I’ve used a knife before because I cook with my mama sometimes.” I love the fact that we can enhance this deep food knowledge at school. I love that we grow so many native crops to southern Louisiana and incorporate those into cooking that’s already part of this culture. It all works so well together.
What part of professional development or on the job training has had the most impact on you as a teacher?
On Thursdays we get together as an Edible Schoolyard New Orleans Team. We come together to learn, and to share the successes and challenges, and work through those together. It’s re-energizing each week. I appreciate being part of a team that’s always seeking out opportunities to learn and grow. We went to the Botanical Gardens recently, and sometimes we have guest speakers. I learn something new every week. Not being from here, those professional development opportunities are very fruitful, shall we say!
Describe one of your favorite moments on the job.
My kindergarteners were walking out to the Gumbo Garden. There were a lot of monarch caterpillars out there. We saw one of them hanging upside down about to turn into a chrysalis. One of our kids noticed it, so I said let’s take this opportunity to watch it, watch metamorphosis actually happen. The kids were so in awe. We paused the lesson, because this is real life happening right before our eyes.
If you could share a garden salad with anyone living or dead, who would you share it with and what is one thing you’d put in the salad?
I’d put passionfruit in the salad. It’s so tart and crunchy. And I’d share it with my Uncle Bobby in Hawaii. He taught me so much about Hawaiian culture and food and growing it, and instilling the importance of passing that on to others. I learned about lilkoi (passionfruit in Hawaii) from him. He taught me how to make kimchi and so many foods I never knew how to make. We’d get together every Wednesday. I never had grandparents growing up, so he was that person for me.
What advice would you give to people who want to work for Edible Schoolyard?
You have to learn to be very flexible and able to stay calm and think on your feet. That’s what this job is every day. Something new, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But because you’re working with kids you have to stay calm.
If you could be magically granted a resource to fuel our work, what would it be?
It’s so wonderful to have funding to support garden teachers. It’s a better experience for kids when they can work in small groups in the garden. And it’s better for us to work as a team. We bounce ideas off each other all the time, so the kids are getting a better experience with more intentional lessons.
What are three things most people wouldn’t know about you?
I went to Zoo Camp for 13 years straight.
I swam competitively, and it got me into college.
My dad is from Malaysia. Most of my childhood vacations were spent there. I’ve climbed the tallest mountain in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu.
If you weren’t a garden teacher, and you could be magically trained and hired to be anything else, what would you be?
Either a marine biologist and scuba dive every day and explore the ocean. Or a zoologist or ecologist; I’ve always wanted to work with animals.
What do you want people to say about you at your retirement party?
That I haven’t been afraid to jump into new situations. In my few years out of college, I’ve lived in five different states. I’ve been adventurous, wanting to explore different parts of the country, and different cultures.
What is your spirit plant?
A carrot. Because on top I can see everything going on above, but also I can see what’s going on under the soil.