For a city previously known for uneven academic success, one organization is finding that the tranquil, yet powerfully instructive space of gardens might be part of the solution to providing a good education to every child.
FirstLine Schools, the founder of the first public charter school in New Orleans in 1998, is one of several public charter school management organizations making great gains in New Orleans’ restructured school system, using teaching gardens and kitchens not only to educate students, but to engage their families.
Recognizing that in New Orleans, many children from low-income families not only lacked access to a quality education, but also lacked access to fresh, healthy foods, FirstLine created the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA), a comprehensive seed to table initiative that includes hands-on lessons in teaching gardens and kitchens, as well as lessons on healthy eating, the environment and sustainable practices.
Modeled after the original program created by chef activist Alice Waters in Berkeley, California, ESYNOLA began by building a small garden that included a few raised beds to begin engaging students in the growing and harvesting of seasonal vegetables and herbs. Now, the garden at Green Charter has blossomed into a one-third of an acre full teaching garden where students in grades K-8 participate in garden classes.
“The gardens became an oasis for our students, most of whom had been traumatized by their experiences following Hurricane Katrina, many having suffered loss of their homes and family members.” said Claudia Barker, executive director of ESYNOLA. “Planning a garden, planting and then harvesting food empowered our students. The work helped them heal and gave them hope.”
ESYNOLA quickly became a crucial part of children’s learning and a cherished part of FirstLine schools’ culture. Garden lessons are aligned with state curriculum standards in science and kitchen lessons teach students nutrition, how to prepare food in healthy ways and enjoy it in community. ESYNOLA, a signature program of FirstLine Schools, serves 2,900 students in grades pre-K through high school, 19 percent of whom are special needs students.
ESYNOLA also incorporates principles of horticultural therapy to help students develop a sense of belonging, confidence and pride, not just in the gardens and meals they create, but in themselves. As part of its approach, ESYNOLA strives to engage with students’ families. Each school offers complimentary programs for its families, teaching healthy grocery shopping techniques, nutrition and food preparation. ESYNOLA offers family food nights, open garden days and parent cooking classes, all effective tools to build community with healthy food at the center.
A grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation supported ESYNOLA’s growth from a few raised garden beds to five teaching gardens and two teaching kitchens. ESYNOLA founding executive director, Donna Cavato, said, “The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s support enabled replication and growth to scale the program and staff across our schools,” helping FirstLine reach as many students in their schools as possible.
New Orleans’ Arthur Ashe Charter School was ESYNOLA’s second site. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the facility, a redesign of the school included an agricultural lab, full teaching kitchen and a partnership with the City of New Orleans to utilize a neighboring park to build the school’s edible garden.
FirstLine Schools and ESYNOLA are also part of a broader initiative in New Orleans through the ReFresh Project, which has renovated an abandoned grocery store into a stunning multi-purpose facility, anchored by a new Whole Foods Market. Importantly for ESYNOLA, the ReFresh Project hosts the offices of several New Orleans-based nonprofits, including FirstLine Schools’ central office, which Barker and her team view as a real advantage for the communities they serve.
“ReFresh is a lot more than just office space,” she said. “Its focus is on building a healthy community through effective partnerships and educational outreach. It is a deep investment in our city’s future.”
In addition to creating a unique and impactful environment for students, ESYNOLA is also proving successful at instilling healthy eating habits in students. FirstLine Schools partnered with Tulane University graduate and medical students to conduct a lunchtime plate-waste study, which found that older children who had been involved in ESYNOLA the longest were making healthier food choices, evidence of the program’s impact.
But a study alone doesn’t tell the story of ESYNOLA’s success for Barker, whose favorite story is that of two 8-year olds in an ESYNOLA cooking class arguing not over who would get the last cookie, but who would get the last artichoke heart.
Ultimately, the impact of ESYNOLA is in the children and families it impacts.
“If children have a place at the table, then they have a place in the world,” is a mantra that Cavato, now director of culture and wellness for FirstLine Schools, instills in the staff and students of FirstLine Schools.
In the case of ESYNOLA, their table happens to seat 2,900.