Behind New Orleans’ Samuel J. Green Charter School a blood orange tree hangs low with the weight of its fruit. The eggplant and okra are ready to harvest. Sunflowers dot the garden with their yellow rays. Who are the gardeners of this plentiful crop? The kindergarteners through eighth-graders at Green Charter.
Before Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago, this primary school in the Freret neighborhood was dilapidated and academically failing. The hurricane’s floodwaters filled the school with about five feet of water — a painted blue line in the cafeteria memorializes the high-water mark. The disaster was a catalyst for a much needed turnaround: New Orleans’ first charter school operator, FirstLine Schools, cleaned up the campus, turning it into a beautifully rejuvenated structure. The school now boasts an athletic field donated by the New Orleans Saints football team, a playground donated by Home Depot, and of course, their one-third acre garden — called The Edible Schoolyard.
Donna Cavato, the garden’s program director, explains that Green Charter was the second school to join the Edible Schoolyard project, started by famed Northern California chef Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation. (The first Edible Schoolyard is at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif.)
In 2006, the garden was barely anything, just a small grass plot in the front of the school. But with the help of donations from chef and New Orleans native Emeril Lagasse and Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the garden grew rapidly, adding a arboretum and tile walkway, an outdoor classroom, a greenhouse and accompanying compost pile, and rich mulch to fill the spaces in between growing stations. It has produced more than 2,500 pounds of produce in the last 18 months, Cavato said.
Neighborhood volunteers also have helped, and on Sept. 12 dozens of them arrived to see the harvest on Open Garden Day, which was also a kickoff event for the newly formed group Slow Food New Orleans. The school was teeming with students eager to show off their produce — including fennel, basil, peanuts, strawberries and a loofah plant. Volunteers were knee-deep in the Wetlands Restoration Project area, where native plants are started to be replanted in the Bayou. Meanwhile, various slow food groups and regional farm networks informed neighbors about their cause.
For many, the highlight was a tour through the school’s brand new industrial and teaching kitchens. The industrial kitchen serves the cafeteria, which can now prepare fresh meals that always include one piece of fruit and a salad bar option for lunch. Equipped with donated Viking equipment, stainless steel chairs and terra-cotta-colored concrete countertops, the teaching kitchen made even restaurateurs jealous. But the students were the most excited to start cooking in it.
Javan Joseph, 11, and his friend Michael Redman, 12, showed off their homemade pesto with basil grown in the garden, which is visible from the kitchen windows. He explained the ingredients, telling me the concoction contained basil, pine nuts, lemon juice and oil. They will sell their pesto and other produce every first Saturday at the Freret Market.
“My favorite are the basil and strawberries,” said Joseph, who lives across the street and often brings home things to cook with his family. “We learn about the different fruits and vegetables and which are which. Everything tastes good.”
The garden’s main purpose, besides providing fresh food for the community members who are always welcome to pick what they want, is to teach the children all kinds of lessons. All 471 students are involved in the garden in some way or another. Denise Richter is the garden teacher, and her lesson plans range from addressing life cycles to a social studies lesson about Native Americans and the seeds they used to use in their food as they made the transition from a nomadic society to an agricultural one.
“The kids adore the garden,” Richter said. “There is something for everyone. We engage their curiosity and their senses. And you can’t teach unless they are curious.”
The next Open Garden Day is Nov. 14 at Samuel J. Green Charter School, 2319 Valence St., New Orleans.