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EDUCATION : NEW ORLEANS : TWO YEARS LATER

'Slow foods' help make fast friends

A charter school follows California restaurateur Alice Waters into the 'Edible Schoolyard'

August 29, 2007

Samuel j. green charter school is home to 360 lower- and middle-school students, nearly all of them poor. Principal Tony Recasner still seems a little amazed that his modest campus would be the latest outpost of the trendy "slow foods" movement extolled by celebrity restaurateur Alice Waters.

Green is one of 39 charter schools operating in post-Katrina New Orleans. Collectively, the campuses represent the most radical change on the educational landscape here since desegregation. The schools hire their own teachers and set their own rules -- which is how Waters was able to come to town.

Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley earned fame with her emphasis on the use of fresh, local, seasonal, organic ingredients. A decade ago, her nonprofit Chez Panisse Foundation opened an "Edible Schoolyard" at a Berkeley public middle school.

The students grow food in the on-campus garden (tended by teacher Eric Kugler, above) and cook it in an on-campus kitchen. Teachers use the experience for lessons in nutrition, biology, math and even the social sciences, as they scrutinize where food comes from and who grows it.

After Katrina, Waters was looking for a way to help New Orleans, and Recasner jumped at the chance to bring the second "Edible Schoolyard" to his school. The New Orleans campus planted a garden last year, with support from the Chez Panisse Foundation, among others. Today, the school's sideyard is full of tomatoes, strawberries and herbs. An outdoor classroom is under construction, and an old girls' locker room will soon be converted into an indoor kitchen.

Nearly all of Recasner's students are African American, and the principal believes that the Edible Schoolyard idea, while modest, is much needed in the black community, where poor eating habits often result in obesity, diabetes, hypertension and tooth decay. He hopes students will pass along new, good habits to their parents. He also hopes other schools will start their own gardens.

"All of the things we talk about when we talk about being worried about poor African American kids, we realized we could express positively and elegantly through this garden," he said.

Just as importantly for Recasner, the project shows how a New Orleans public school -- a charter school, that is -- can react nimbly and creatively when approached with a novel idea. Before Katrina, the city's public school system was a disaster: Only 26% of its eighth-graders were proficient in reading. It was also, in the words of an Urban Institute study, "famously mismanaged and corrupt," having turned to an outside rescue firm to take over its business functions just before the storm.

The charter movement may be a source of controversy nationwide, but Recasner likes the autonomy his campus enjoys. The school's ideas, much like its garden vegetables, are fresh and local.

"The odds of us being able to do what we're doing now under the old system, it would have been about 1 in 10 million," he said.

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