Zach O’Donnell is the lead garden educator at Samuel J. Green Charter School since 2012. Born and raised in Chicago, Zach comes to ESYNOLA with years of experience in international garden development and environmental education.
How would you describe your job at Edible Schoolyard New Orleans to a Pre-K student?
I play in the dirt and grow some food. I like to eat, so I grow some food so I can eat it.
Before you worked for ESYNOLA, what was one of the more unusual or interesting jobs you had?
Right before I worked with ESY I worked in Mozambique with farmers, and taught them to grow soybeans, which is something I never expected to do. I was in rural communities in the mountains in Mozambique in a pickup truck, driving down roads that didn’t look like roads, meeting amazing people, and helping farmers grow something they’d never grown before so that they could make money and build bigger houses and buy more food for their families.
If you could eat a garden salad with one person, living or dead, who would it be, and what is one thing you’d put in the salad?
For the person, Nelson Mandela, because he’s someone I’ve always admired. He lived a crazy life, a hard life, and accomplished a lot for a lot of people. I wouldn’t be able to say much to him, because I’d be speechless. For the salad ingredient, I’d choose artichoke hearts, because they always make a salad fancy.
If you could eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Potato Salad. I invented the potato salad sandwich. Rye Bread, cheddar, and potato salad. Yum.
If you weren’t a garden teacher at ESYNOLA, and you could magically trained and qualified to be anything else, what would you be?
An astronaut. Floating in outer space, or maybe a deep sea diver.
Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?
Gatherer. I feel like everything you need is around you. You just have to find it.
What has been your favorite project or proudest moment as a garden teacher?
I’ve always loved going to market with students to sell stuff. I see kids go from super nervous and then move to talking customers’ ears off, because they’re super proud of their work. But actually, right now I enjoy the kids building our fence. It’s a weird project, but the students get so proud of the fence they built, as something they put their time into. They come together and walk in the garden every day and say, “that’s my fence.” Something they created with the skills they learned in our class. It’s lasting, and is a daily conversation.
What are three traits that describe you?
Organized, sometimes to a fault.
I always think there’s more that you can do.
I have a beard.
If you could learn to do anything, what would you learn to do?
Music, of any sort. I was forced to take music classes when I was little. I only say forced because I was never any good at it and didn’t appreciate it. I’m sure it was really well intended, but it never stuck. I just don’t have the rhythm everyone else has. These days I’d say guitar, or maybe jaw harp. My wife would love that.
Is there a food or plant that brings you back to a happy memory at ESYNOLA.
Carrots are a happy place. Carrots always bring so much joy, there’s such a shock when you pull them out of the ground.
How has the perspective of the benefits of our work changed for you over your years of teaching?
I think we’re always looking for the beautiful piece of evidence to show that the work we do has a huge impact. We know it does, it’s just hard to find that story all the time. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that the impact is way down the line, when our kids are adults. But one thing I’ve noticed more and more lately are little moments of our kids interacting with each other, where their conversation, for whatever reason, becomes about fresh fruits and vegetables.
We have kids in our school who have been there for 9 years in our garden. They have a way of going about their daily life that’s hugely impacted by ESY. They love fruits and vegetables. They may not go out to the farmer’s market to buy fruits and vegetables, but they never say no to them because they’ve grown up with them. If you took our kids and compared them to kids at another school without an ESY program, you’d see a huge difference just in what they say and what they love.