Richard Ashmore is a kitchen class volunteer at Samuel J. Green Charter School. From 1968 to 2007, he was a Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University. Upon his retirement, after hearing about Edible Schoolyard New Orleans in a speech by Alice Waters at a Southern Foodways Conference, he signed up to volunteer. Over the last eleven years, in ESYNOLA kitchen classes, and at events like Family Food Nights and Open Garden Days, Richard Ashmore has dedicated more than 1,600 hours of service to students and families at Green, making him our most tenured volunteer. The kids call him Mr. Richard.
What was your first introduction to the program, and what was it like in 2007?
In the beginning I worked out in the garden with Mr. K and Denise. I think that was my introduction. Things were not partitioned like they are now. We’d do garden, and when we’d get a chance to cook we’d push all the tables in a classroom to the side except for two, and we’d put those propane hot plates in the middle to do kitchen. Afterwards we’d break it down and do the dishes in the girls’ and boys’ bathrooms.
From the perspective you have, how has the mission or the purpose of the work shifted over the years, or do you think it has?
I don’t think it has. I’ve never encountered anyone who worked here who was anything other than loving and kind to the children. Even though in early years maintaining attention was difficult, I never saw anything other than an attempt to lovingly bring everyone back to the task at hand.
I remember was that every year there was a, maybe you’d call it an inventory, but an analysis of what we did last year and how we can do it better this year. So for example there was another way of trying lining up properly, or maybe we do this before we sit down on the benches. I don’t remember all the ways, but I remember there was always an attempt to learn from how we did things the previous year. And that’s still happening.
What I’m saying is that I notice an ability and willingness to love the kids and do everything possible to keep them on the task of learning and gardening and being in the kitchen, and being able to learn to try new things to do it a little bit better.
What past experience best prepared you to be a volunteer in the kitchen?
I remember realizing in college that it was my responsibility to help people as much as possible and hurt people as little as possible. That came from my mom and dad. That’s the way they behaved; they never made a big deal out of it. In a sense, they prepared me to be of service because of this push to see part of my responsibility to be helpful and non-hurtful. That’s part of what we try to do here.
How would you describe your job as a volunteer in the ESYNOLA kitchen to a Pre-K student?
My job here is to help you get the most you can out of the time in the kitchen. Sometimes I’ll be doing that by reminding you to wash your hands. Sometimes I’ll help you learn what’s so special about our kitchen, how we can take the vegetables we grow and take them into the kitchen and cook them in a healthy way, and then talk with each other about our day and what we’re doing. My job will be to help you do that.
What has been your favorite project or proudest moment at ESYNOLA?
Things that I’ve done here that I enjoy the most, I really really enjoy Family Food NIght. I enjoy having children, their parents, their grandmothers, their aunts, brothers and sisters, whoever, come and cook together something that’s very healthful that involves some of our own produce, and sit down and talk to each other. I think those are really special events.
If I could be any animal, which animal would you be?
A unicorn. My eight-year-old granddaughter is a big fan of unicorns, and if I could appear as a unicorn for her, that would be a lot of fun. I would like doing that.
What is a trait that describes you?
My oldest grandchild would say that I’m odd, and I regard that as a compliment.
Is there a food or plant that brings you back to a happy memory of Edible Schoolyard, one that you associate with our work.
Strawberries. For years we could never get a strawberry past white-pink because the kids would just take them. Strawberries are very attractive and taste great.
Is there a plant or food that your relationship with which has changed as a result of our work?
I think I’m more willing now to wing it than to follow recipes than I was before I came here.
How has your perspective of the need for or benefits of our work changed over the years?
I think that the use of the kitchen and the garden as a metaphor for taking care of the world and taking care of each other is more important for the world now. Right now I think the world is heading in not such a good direction. To have part of school in the kitchen, and the ideas behind this–taking care of the earth and growing it and using what the earth can provide in a way that takes care of the earth and then bringing it in and preparing it in a healthy way–I think the world needs that.
What instilled the spirit of service that inspires you to continue on like you do?
I’ve always known that I was lucky, that I was fortunate, and I think over the last twenty years I’ve been more aware that gratitude is more than a feeling of good fortune; it’s an acknowledgment that I need to give back–not a quid pro quo of I got this I have to do that–but an acknowledgment that everything I’ve accomplished in life was built on other people. It seems to me that being of service seems like the right thing to do.