Food luminary Alice Waters has been the catalyst for a handful of our foodie movements over the last four decades. The owner and chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California is known for her “farm-to-table” approach to feeding people and her own version of no child left behind, called The Edible Schoolyard Project. Through that program, kids from communities all across the United States are taught the value of planting, harvesting, preparing and then eating their own food—literally, consuming the fruits of their labor.
Since establishing the first Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley 20 years ago, Waters has expanded her efforts countrywide to change the way kids. She sanctioned the first replication of her Edible Schoolyard concept in New Orleans a decade ago, and there are now seven Edible Schoolyards around the nation in addition to countless school gardens. But at 10 years old, edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA) leads the cause in depth and breadth.
“I felt like I was an activist from the very beginning,” Waters told Time in 2014. “I felt like I could change the world, if we all changed the way we ate.”
ESYNOLA is celebrating its 10th anniversary with five school gardens, over 3,000 students and an execution of the work that is truly unique; their students receive gardening and culinary arts as part of their regular school day, sometimes multiple times per week, with 4,000 classes per year. They also have two teaching kitchens and do over 70 events a year that involve parents and the community. Students go to farmers markets, have Iron Chef-style competitions, participate in open and family garden days and family food nights where they prepare a meal with loved ones.
“As we speak,” executive director Claudia Barker told GOOD, “some of our students are digging in the dirt with the First Lady.”
And connection between ESYNOLA and Washington D.C. is strong. About four years ago, the program’s first chef educator, April Neujean, participated in a round table at the White House called “Chef’s Move to Schools,” which was meant to get chefs’ perspectives on how to improve the quality of food and service in cafeterias. This past April, students from Green Charter School were invited to the Capitol to help Michelle Obama plant her kitchen garden, and earlier this month they returned to help her harvest.
“We hope she’s getting a sense of what edible education is like here in New Orleans by working with our students,” says Barker.
Michelle Obama’s primary project during her time in the White House has been the Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity, so she is a natural partner for an organization like Edible Schoolyards. And Alice Waters’ food-focused endeavor seems almost presciently devised in 2016. In the 20 years since Edible Schoolyards was founded, food deserts—defined as low-income communities without ready access to healthy and affordable food—have become a massive problem in the U.S.
The United States Department of Agriculture even made a Food Desert Locator in conjunction with Let’s Move, and according to that government body, nearly 14 million Americans are defined as having “low access” to a supermarket or large grocery store. (That means living more than a mile from one of those services in an urban area, and more than 10 miles away in a rural one.) If people, especially children, don’t have access to quality food distributors, it’s even more vital that they learn how to grow their own.
Fortunately, ESYNOLA isn’t done growing yet. Expansion plans include a one-acre garden with a greenhouse at Arthur Ashe Charter School and developing the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation outdoor pavilion, which will be a multi-purpose resource for a neighborhood still rebuilding post-Katrina. Program coordinators are also planning on designing and raising money for a garden/kitchen house at Phillis Wheatley Community School that can accommodate two full classes of students. Located adjacent to famous eateries, Willie Mae’s and Dooky Chase, it will be a resource for the Treme community.
“Our commitment to this work evolved out of a desire to provide a healing space post-Katrina for our students,” says Barker. “We started with building a garden in the one school that we were able to reopen in 2006 post-flood, Samuel J. Green Charter. The director of that school at the time, Dr. Tony Recasner, is a child psychologist and knew the value of gardens as a healing space for children.”
The impact on the community has been immense, even if it is hard to quantify. Waters’ nonprofit, the Chez Panisse Foundation, released one internal study in 2010 that said students surveyed at the Berkeley site over the course of four years showed an increased knowledge of nutrition and, as a result of gardening and culinary education, had “broadened their taste for and consumption of fruits and vegetables.”
But the strongest testaments to the program seem to be anecdotal. The way families in the ESYNOLA community choose and prepare their food has changed. “I’ve had parents call up and ask, ‘What is kale and how do I cook it?’ because their child came home asking about it,” says Barker. “It’s been totally embraced in surprising ways. We’re finding that our students are cooking more at home. They’re asking to be in charge of meals. Some ask to have a responsibility to prepare dinner one night a week, and then of course the sibling want to do the same thing. So all of a sudden mom or dad has only five nights a week that they have to cook instead of seven.”
There have been instances of ESYNOLA students deciding to go into culinary arts, too. Recently, an eighth grader at Samuel J. Green said that he wanted to have his own kitchen and that all he wanted to do was to tell people how wonderful it is to eat healthy.
“That was a really remarkable thing for somebody who is 13 years old to say at that point in their life,” says Barker. And one more aspiring chef could mean one less food desert in the future.