“I discovered two things today: I’m not allergic to vegetables and a burger doesn’t need to have meat in it!” exclaims Tiren*, an 11-year-old student in my kitchen class, as he happily finishes the last bite of the black-bean-sweet-potato burger he made in our class.
Tiren and his 30 fifth-grade classmates not only made the burgers, but the buns and ketchup as well. The students even harvested vegetables from our garden, then sliced and piled them atop their veggie burgers—not to mention the dynamic discussion they maintained throughout the week about the moral and environmental challenges of industrial meat.
Tiren and his classmates are part of the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA)—a nonprofit, school-based food education program offered to students in kindergarten through twelfth grade at five FirstLine Schools in New Orleans, LA. At ESYNOLA, we seek to change the way children—and their families—eat, learn, and live by growing beautiful, edible gardens at all five schools and running teaching kitchens at two of them. In our gardens and kitchens, we offer a variety of programs, ranging from daily garden and kitchen classes to special field trips and events celebrating local foods, food culture, and food professionals.
As the lead chef educator at one of our five schools, my co-chef and I (along with the help of about 20 volunteers and interns) teach an average of four classes a day to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. We intersperse classes with field trips to local grocery stores, farms, farmers markets, restaurants, and more, teaching our students to apply the lessons we learn in our classes about personal, communal, and environmental health to the world around them. We also host dozens of special events that partner students with local professional chefs, farmers, and even crops, all the while inviting our students’ families in to cook, eat, and garden with us.
Perhaps my favorite event—better even than our annual Watermelon Day or Iron Chef Competition—is our biannual Family Food Night, where a group of students get to invite their families to cook dinner with us in the kitchen, showcasing their new passion for food and sharing a special evening. At the end of the evening, we send each family home with the recipes from that evening’s meal and full bags of groceries with all the ingredients needed to replicate the meal at home.
Beyond our direct impact, we also consult with our schools’ food service provider—the company charged with cooking over 7,000 meals a day at our five schools—to help them not only exceed the federal nutrition and freshness standards, but also to incorporate the seasonal ingredients that kids see growing in our gardens; develop recipes that students enjoy and create in our classes; and convene student focus groups where student-leaders give direct feedback to the company to improve the meals and experience.
In our schools’ cafeterias, we run schoolwide composting programs that employ kids of all ages in waste reduction: composting their leftovers to nourish our gardens. At our school, the grades compete for the prestigious Golden Apple Compost Award, given to the grade that makes the best contributions to our composting system. The winners of the monthly contest receive a seasonal dish cooked from our garden harvest to reinforce the cycle of giving that creates hundreds of pounds of compost each week for the maintenance of our garden.
Besides composting, kids also salvage uneaten food and drink from their lunches. This year alone, we’ve collected hundreds of gallons of unopened milk and hundreds of pounds of uneaten fruits and vegetables for a variety of projects, like making yogurts and cheeses in our classes. All of these reclaimed groceries, value-added products, and the bountiful harvest from our garden are available for school families to take home at no cost whatsoever. At least once a week at school dismissal time, we bring the bounty to the front of the school and construct an elaborate Harvest Table for families to pick out free, fresh groceries on their way home.
This abundance has flowered out of a post-Hurricane Katrina gift from chef-activist Alice Waters to one of our schools. Moved by the recovery efforts, Waters invited our school leadership to emulate the Edible Schoolyard program she created in Berkley, CA, to help our city rebuild in a more vibrant way. Eight years later, we’re still young and growing into the full-fledged programming that we someday envision—but we’re also proud of what we’ve already accomplished at our five sites.
Last year, the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University conducted our first program evaluation. One of the many findings was that 48 percent of our ESYNOLA students reported eating green vegetables the day before compared to 10 percent nationally, and 85 percent of our students reported eating fresh fruit compared to 61 percent nationally.
Though we still have so much more that we want to do in our five schools (and the many other schools around our city) to accomplish our goals, these are just a few of the myriad data points we see daily that help us know we’re growing something good.
*Tiren’s name has been changed to protect his identity.