Friday, May 16, 2008

A Good-News Katrina Story

How would you like a feel-good story? A really good one?

Edible SY

Donna and I recently spent ten days in New Orleans where we have an apartment as well as close family members and a host of friends. I spent my first 17 years there, and Donna most of her adult life there running a contemporary art gallery. New Orleans is very close to both of us, and in many ways.

During our visit, we indulged in many of the activities that residents and visitors to New Orleans do. We ate well, both upscale and down (Galatoire’s, Gautreaux, Antoine’s, 1179, Commander’s Palace, Felix, Café Degas, Liuzza’s). We listened to jazz, although on our two attempts to visit JazzFest we were thwarted by thunderstorms. We did manage to hit some of the Frenchmen St. and nearby music joints – Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor, and Saturn Bar. And, of course, there were the dinner parties with friends.

But back in New York, the words "New Orleans" cannot be uttered without immediately being asked, “ How’s the recovery coming along?” The short answer is, “slowly.” The long answer, by definition, takes longer.

Three months after the waters of hurricane Katrina receded, the unflooded part of the city, comprising only about 20% of the land area, was back in business -- the port, much of the commercial area, the French Quarter, the Garden District, a large part of uptown, Tulane University (the city’s largest employer), and a few other areas. Over the last two years, this so-called “sliver by the river” has recovered reasonably well, especially considering that the city is virtually broke and leadership has been in short supply. In fact, one could visit New Orleans, confine yourself to just the functioning parts of the city, and not even be aware that one of the nation’s worst disasters happened within a few blocks of where you were standing.

The main problem lies in the remaining 80% of the land area, the bedroom of the city. It has barely recovered since the August 29, 2005, hurricane. In that devastated area, the 100,000-plus homes (and 25,000 businesses) that were flooded and largely destroyed, there is pitifully little recovery. It’s a house at a time, and only by those that can afford to rebuild. There is no master plan. (Where is Robert Moses when we need him?) You can take a tour of the devastated areas and simply not believe that you are in the United States of America – it resembles more closely post-war Germany or Japan. Of the pre-storm New Orleans population of 450,000, perhaps 150,000-200,000 are still part of the Diaspora. And the vast majority of those displaced are unlikely to return, having by now established lives for themselves elsewhere in the country.

So having begun this piece with the question, “Would you like a feel-good story?”, what has any of this to do with feeling good?

As it turns out there actually is a beneficiary of Katrina – the school system in New Orleans. Cynics might say that the school system was so dysfunctional – perhaps the worst in the country – that it could only get better. And there is some truth to this. But what’s helped substantially and engendered optimism by many is the takeover of the city school system by the state of Louisiana and giving it a fresh start. Today there still remain some conventional public schools as well as a number of parochial schools. But what’s encouraging is that half the schools are now charters. Many of the charter schools have adopted a typical educational theme – math/science, college prep, arts, et al.

But the charter school that most interested us during our visit, the one with the most imaginative specialization, was the
 Edible Schoolyard of New Orleans (ESYNOLA). This K-8 school began operating in the fall of 2006, a year after Katrina struck. It is based on the original Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley California, and is the first sanctioned replication of that successful program founded by Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters 11 years ago.

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What the Edible Schoolyard attempts to do is to integrate organic gardening and fresh seasonal cooking into the school’s curriculum, culture and food programs. It involves the students in all aspects --farming the garden and then preparing, serving and eating the food.

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The students plant fall and winter crops, including lettuce, carrots, radishes, green onions, mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, and many varieties of herbs and flowers. Winter editions to the Edible Garden will include planting grapevines, a citrus grove, a strawberry patch, and a New Orleans jungle area that will surround the outdoor classroom with banana, avocado and papaya trees.
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Longer term plans include the construction of the Edible Kitchen. This will be a hands-on teaching kitchen where students learn how to prepare nutritious meals from harvested produce from their own edible Garden.

ESYNOLA has a student body of 320 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. In the current school year, 98% of them are African-American and 95% of them qualify for federal free or reduced lunch/breakfast programs. Only one-fourth are from the neighborhood; the rest are bused in.

Every academic activity, and many extracurricular ones, revolve around the garden. It informs their course in math, science, nutrition, health, and their recreation. And they’re learning to appreciate food groups that are far removed from the fast-food and starchy diets that so many of them have grown up with.

To walk around the school and see the enthusiasm of the students, their smiling faces, their good behavior, their proudly worn uniforms -- these are not the experiences one usually associates with schools today. But the best indication of how well the concept of the edible schoolyard is being accepted by the students is borne out in their attendance records – the school enjoys a remarkable 98% attendance rate! Could that be the highest in the country?

It’s still too early to have any quantitative results on how the concept is affecting their educational performance. But even without a single scientific study, I’m willing to bet that these kids are achieving, and will continue to achieve, well beyond their peer group. You don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing.

This optimistic assessment, however, is not shared by one constituency – the teachers’ unions. The unions have long been critics of charter schools and other approaches toward school choice. They lost their collective bargaining rights in the New Orleans schools. Since then, the unions have fought to reassert themselves as political forces and have frequently criticized the state takeover and the charter school movement, according to the
 New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In a recent report, “Reading, Writing and Reality Check,” the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers disparaged the notion of, and results from, charter schools.

But according to a study of the Berkeley, California, Martin Luther King Edible Schoolyard by the Harvard Medical School, as cited in the
 New York Times magazine last year, “After one year, students at King, compared with a control group at a similar middle school, showed improvement in behavior and fewer emotional problems… their overall grade point averages improved.”

Friends in New York and elsewhere often ask us what they might do to help in the New Orleans recovery. We now have a new suggestion. Consider a donation to the Edible Schoolyard of New Orleans. It’s a small entity with a big mission. And unlike many of the “large” charities to which we and many of our friends traditionally direct our philanthropy, where large donations sometimes have only a modest impact on the organization, a small donation to the Edible Schoolyard will have a big-time impact. And if you visit the school some day, you may be able to get a discount on an organic radish.

ESYNOLA is federally recognized 501c3 non-profit organization, and is tax deductible. If you wish to contribute, you may send a check of any amount to: Edible Schoolyard NOLA at Samuel Green Charter School, 2319 Valence Street, New Orleans, LA 70115 . Or contact Renee Allie at:info@esynola.org Or contribute online by clicking on the link here.

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